Category Archives: Defamation

How Section 230 is like arson laws when it comes to enjoining website operators

The case of Blockowicz v. Williams, — F.Supp.2d —, 2009 WL 4929111 (N.D. Ill. December 21, 2009), which I posted on last week is worthy of discussion in that it raises the question of whether website operators like Ripoff Report could get off too easily when they knowingly host harmful third party content. Immunity under 47 U.S.C. 230 is often criticized for going too far in shielding operators. Under Section 230, sites cannot be treated as the publisher or speaker of information provided by third party information content providers. This means that even when the site operator is put on notice of the content, it cannot face, for example, defamation liability for the continued availability of that content.

Don’t get me wrong — the Blockowicz case had nothing to do with Section 230. Although Ben Sheffner is routinely sharp in his legal analysis, I disagree with his assessment that Section 230 was the reason for the court’s decision. In the comments to Ben’s post that I just linked to, Ben gets into conversation with Ripoff Report’s general counsel, whom I believe correctly notes that the decision was not based on Section 230. Ben argues that had Section 230 not provided immunity, the plaintiffs would have been able to go after Ripoff Report directly, and therefore Section 230 is to blame. That’s kind of like saying if arson were legal, plaintiffs could just go burn down Ripoff Report’s datacenter. But you don’t hear anyone blaming arson laws for this decision.

Even though Section 230 didn’t form the basis of the court’s decision in favor of Ripoff Report, the notion of a website operator “acting in concert” with its users is intriguing. Clearly the policy of Section 230 is to place some distance, legally speaking, between site operator and producer of user-generated content. And the whole idea behind the requirement in copyright law that infringement must arise from a volitional act and not an automatic action of the system is a first cousin to this issue. See, e.g., Religious Tech. Center v. Netcom, 907 F.Supp. 1361, 1370 (N.D. Cal. 1995) (“[T]here should still be some element of volition or causation which is lacking where a defendant’s system is merely used to create a copy by a third party”).

For the web to continue to develop, we are going to need this continued protection of the intermediary. We’re going to see functions of the semantic web appear with more frequency in our everyday online lives. From a practical perspective, there will be even more distance — a continuing divergence between a provider’s will and the nature of the content. So as we get into the technologies that will make the web smarter, and our experience of it more robust and helpful, we’ll need notions of intermediary immunity more and not less.

That notion of an increasing need for intermediary immunity underscores how important it is that intermediaries act responsibly. No doubt people misunderstand the holdings of cases like this one. By refusing to voluntarily take down obviously defamatory material, and challenging a court order to do so, Ripoff Report puts a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Sure there’s the First Amendment and all that, but where’s a sense of reasonable decency? Sure there’s the idea that free flowing information supports democracy and all that, but has anyone stopped to think what could happen when the politicians get involved again?

Do not taunt Happy Fun Ball

We are fortunate that Congress was as equinamimous and future-minded as it was in 1996 when it enacted the immunity provisions of Section 230. But results like the one in the Blockowicz case are going to be misunderstood. There’s a hue and cry already about this decision, in that it appears to leave no recourse. Section 230 wasn’t involved, but it still got the blame. Even the judge was “sympathetic to the [plaintiffs’] plight.”

So maybe we need, real quickly, another decision like the Roommates.com case, that reminds us that website operators don’t always get a free ride.

Injunction against defamatory content could not reach website owner

Blockowicz v. Williams, — F.Supp.2d —, 2009 WL 4929111 (N.D. Ill. December 21, 2009)

(This is a case from last month that has already gotten some attention in the legal blogosphere, and is worth reporting on here in spite of the already-existing commentary.)

Plaintiffs sued two individual defendants for defamation over content those defendants posted online. The court entered an order of default after the defendants didn’t answer the complaint. The court also issued an injunction against the defendants, requiring them to take down the defamatory material.

grasping

When plaintiffs were unable to reach the defendants directly, they asked the websites on which the content was posted — MySpace, Facebook, Complaints Board and Ripoff Report — to remove the material.

All of the sites except Ripoff Report took down the defamatory content. Plaintiffs filed a motion with the court to get Ripoff Report to remove the material. Ripoff Report opposed the motion, arguing that Rule 65 (the federal rule pertaining to injunctions) did not give the court authority to bind Ripoff Report as a non-party. The court sided with Ripoff Report and denied the motion.

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 65 states that injunctions bind the parties against whom they are issued as well as “other persons who are in active concert or participation with” those parties. In this case, the court looked to the Seventh Circuit opinion of S.E.C. v. Homa, 514 F.3d 674 (7th Cir. 2008) for guidance on the contours of Rule 65’s scope. Under Homa, a non-party can be bound by an injunction if it is “acting in concert” or is “legally identified” (like as an agent or employee) with the enjoined party.

Plaintiffs argued that Ripoff Report was acting in concert with the defamers. Plaintiffs looked to Ripoff Report’s terms of service, by which posters to the site give an exclusive copyright license to and agree to indemnify Ripoff Report. Those terms also state that Ripoff Report will not remove any content for any reason. Plaintiffs read this combination of terms to stand for some sort of arrangement whereby Ripoff Report agreed to be a safe haven for defamatory material.

The court rejected this argument, finding there was no evidence in the record that Ripoff Report intended to protect defamers. Moreover, there was no evidence that Ripoff Report had communicated with the defendants in any way since the entry of a permanent injunction, or otherwise worked to violate the earlier court order requiring defendants to remove the materials.

Other commentary on this case:

Grasping photo courtesy Flickr user Filmnut under this Creative Commons license.

Was on CNN.com talking about Twitter

Great time today being on CNN.com Live talking about the recent lawsuit filed against a Twitter user for talking about mold in her apartment and an apparently uncaring management company. Video embedded below. (Or click through if it’s not showing up in the RSS feed).

Expedited electronic discovery includes subpoena to ISP and imaging of defendants’ hard drives

Allcare Dental Management, LLC v. Zrinyi, No. 08-407, 2008 WL 4649131 (D. Idaho October 20, 2008)

Plaintiffs filed a defamation lawsuit against some known defendants as well as some anonymous John Doe defendants in federal court over statements posted to Complaintsboard.com. The plaintiffs did not know the names or contact information of the Doe defendants, so they needed to get that information from the Does’ Internet service provider.  But the ISP would not turn that information over without a subpoena because of the restrictions of the Cable Communications Policy Act, 47 U.S.C. § 501 et seq. [More on the CCPA.]

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(d)(1), a party generally may not seek discovery in a case until the parties have had a Rule 26(f) conference to discuss such things as discovery. Because of the Rule 26(d)(1) requirement, the plaintiffs found themselves in a catch-22 of sorts: how could they know with whom to have the Rule 26(f) conference if they did not know the defendants’ identity.

So the plaintiffs’ filed a motion with the court to allow a subpoena to issue to the ISP prior to the Rule 26(f) conference. Finding that there was good cause for the expedited discovery, the court granted the motion. It found that the subpoena was needed to ascertain the identities of the unknown defendants. [More on Doe subpoenas.] Furthermore, it was important to act sooner than later, because ISPs retain data for only a limited time.

The Plaintiffs also contended that that the known defendants would likely delete relevant information from their computer hard drives before the parties could engage in the ordinary process of discovery. So the plaintiffs’ motion also sought an order requiring the known defendants to turn over their computers to have their hard drives copied.

The court granted this part of the motion as well, ordering the known defendants to turn their computers over to the plaintiffs’ retained forensics professional immediately. The forensics professional was to make the copies of the hard drives and place those copies with the court clerk, not to be accessed or reviewed until stipulation of the parties or further order from the court.

No CDA immunity for letting co-defendant use computer to post material

Capital Corp. Merchant Banking, Inc. v. Corporate Colocation, Inc., No. 07-1626, 2008 WL 4058014 (M.D.Fla., August 27, 2008)

Professor Goldman points us to a recent decision in a case where the plaintiff alleged that one of the individual defendants “allowed [a co-defendant] to use ‘a computer registered in her name’ to make . . . defamatory statements.” The defendants filed a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, arguing that the Communications Decency Act (CDA) at 47 U.S.C. 230 barred the claims. The court denied the motion.

With little analysis, the court cited to the 9th Circuit’s Roommates.com decision, holding that “[t]he CDA provides immunity for the removal of content, not the creation of the content.” While that is not an incorrect statement, it is troublesome in this context inasmuch as it tells half the story.

Yes, 47 U.S.C. 230(c) does provide protection to “Good Samaritan” operators of interactive computer services who remove offensive content. The user whose content has been removed would not have a cause of action against the operator who took down the content in good faith. See 47 U.S.C. 230(c)(2).

But 47 U.S.C. 230(c)(1) provides that no provider of an interactive computer service shall be treated as a publisher or speaker of any information provided by a third party. Courts have usually held that when a defamation plaintiff brings a claim against the operator of the computer service used to post defamatory content (who was not responsible for creating the content), such a claim is barred, as the plaintiff would not be able to satisfy the publication element of a defamation prima facie case.

Maybe in this situation the court found that the defendant who let a co-defendant use her computer did not meet the definition of a service provider as contemplated by the CDA. But it would have been nice to see that analysis written down, rather than having to merely surmise or speculate.

California’s anti-SLAPP statute not applied to request for subpoena

Request for subpoena to unmask anonymous defendants in prospective Internet defamation case did not set forth “cause of action” or initiate judicial proceedings.

Tendler v. www.jewishsurvivors.blogspot.com, No. H031130, 2008 WL 2352497 (Cal.App. 6th Dist. June 10, 2008)

Some people (anonymously) set up several blogs on Google’s Blogger, and posted some nasty things about Rabbi Tendler. Rabbi Tendler got an Ohio state court to issue subpoenas to Google, requiring Google to turn over the IP addresses used to create the offending blog posts. Google refused to comply with the Ohio subpoenas, so Rabbi Tendler requested a California court issue subpoenas (which Google would more likely respond to) based on the Ohio subpoenas.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and Public Citizen stepped in on behalf of the anonymous bloggers (the “Does”) and moved to quash the subpoenas. The following week, the Does filed an anti-SLAPP motion under California Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16, seeking to “strike [the] proceeding” and recover attorney’s fees.

Section 425.16, the anti-SLAPP statute, provides, in relevant part that “[a] cause of action against a person arising from any act of that person in furtherance of the person’s right of petition or free speech under the United States or California Constitution in connection with a public issue shall be subject to a special motion to strike, unless the court determines that the plaintiff has established that there is a probability that the plaintiff will prevail on the claim.” A prevailing defendant under this statute can recover his or her attorney’s fees.

The trial court granted the anti-SLAPP motion and awarded about $20,000 in attorney’s fees to the Does. Rabbi Tendler sought review with the California Court of Appeal. The appellate court reversed.

The court looked to the plain meaning of the statute, observing that section 425.16 requires that the cause of action to be stricken must be contained in a complaint, cross-complaint, petition or similar pleading initiating a judicial proceeding. The request for subpoena in this case was not any of those sorts of pleadings, and it did not initiate a judicial proceeding.

The Does looked for support from the decision of Krinsky v. Doe 6, 159 Cal.App.4th 1154 (2008). The court refused, however, to find Krinsky to be instructive. In that case, the court held that a motion to quash a subpoena to discover the identity of an anonymous defendant in an Internet defamation case should be granted unless the party seeking discovery makes a prima facie showing on at least one of his or her claims. The Does (or should we say their EFF and Public Citizen attorneys) argued that this means a request for subpoena is tantamount to a cause of action. But this court held otherwise. Krinsky sets the standard for a motion to quash, but does not set the requirements for the request itself.

Complaint amended in AutoAdmit defamation lawsuit

The saga surrounding the defamation lawsuit filed by a couple of Yale law students against some anonymous posters to the AutoAdmit forum board keeps brewing. According to this article from the Yale Daily News, the plaintiffs, two female law students, have amended their complaint against the 38 John Doe defendants. This time around, they omitted from the list of defendants a former employee of AutoAdmit, who was a defendant in the original complaint. Looks like the plaintiffs have considered the effect of 47 USC 230 on their chances of success against the provider of the forum board service.

“Immunity” not accurate description for 47 USC 230 protection

So says a trial court judge from Arizona.

Children of America, Inc. v. Edward Mageson, et al., CV 2007-003720, Superior Court of Maricopa County, Arizona (October 24, 2007)

Ripoffreport.com is a website where individuals can post information about companies, ostensibly to warn other consumers of unscrupulous practices or bad service. Children of America, Inc. sued Ripoffreport.com in Arizona state court for defamation. Ripoffreport.com moved to dismiss, asserting “immunity” under provisions of the Communications Decency Act at 47 U.S.C. 230, which state that “[n]o provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” The court granted the motion in part and denied it in part.

Many commentators on Section 230 (including myself) have used the term “immunity” to describe the protection that the section provides. But in this case, the court eschewed this characterization, observing that it “tends to cast the applicability of the statute as an all-or-nothing question focused upon the overall character of the Defendant’s computer services.” Instead, the court held that whether Section 230 serves as a defense depends on the particular content at issue.

The plaintiffs alleged that Ripoffreport.com had edited and authored the headlines that accompanied the user generated content, and that certain headlines, standing alone, were actionable as defamatory. Because the court was constrained, at the motion to dismiss stage, to accept the allegations as true, it denied the motion as to the headlines allegedly authored by Ripoffreport.com. The motion was granted as to the content provided by third parties.

Professor Goldman also reports on this case, and points out that the court says “confidently” that Ripoffreport.com cannot face liability “for their actions in promoting the site, organizing the content, making the contents more accessible on search engines or soliciting contributions of content.” He speculates, I think interestingly, that this court was “going out of its way to reject [Judge] Kozinski’s opinion” in the Roommates.com decision.

California appellate court affirms dismissal of defamation suit against stock blogger

GTX Global Corp. v. Left, No. B192626, 2007 WL 1300065 (Cal.App. 2 Dist. May 4, 2007)

Andrew Left publishes the blog stocklemon.com, and in 2005, he made a couple of posts critical about plaintiff GTX. In turn, GTX sued Left for invasion of privacy and defamation. At the trial court level, Left moved to strike the complaint under California’s Anti-SLAPP statute [Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16], and the court threw out the case. GTX sought review with the California Court of Appeal, which affirmed the trial court’s dismissal.

When a defendant files an Anti-SLAPP motion in California, the court first considers whether the plaintiff’s cause of action arises from any act of the defendant’s taken in furtherance of that defendant’s right of petition or free speech. If the court finds the defendant has made the threshold showing, it then determines whether the plaintiff has demonstrated a probability of prevailing on its claim.

In this case, there were a number of statements made on the Stocklemon blog which GTX claimed were false and defamatory, including allegations that the company was headed by a convicted felon, and engages in stock fraud.

The court held that these statements arose from an act taken in furtherance of Left’s right of free speech, and that GTX had failed to establish a probability of prevailing on its claims. It held that for purposes of the Anti-SLAPP statute, the website was to be considered a public forum. But the public forum status of the place where the statements were made was not determinative — the court also held that the statements were connected with an issue of public interest.

In determining that GTX had failed to demonstrate a likelihood of prevailing on its claim, the court found that GTX had “adduced no evidentiary support for any of its causes of action.” The plaintiff did not “identify a single piece of evidence to support its allegations that defendant’s challenged statements were false or otherwise defamatory.”

Accordingly, the court affirmed the dismissal of the action against Left, and awarded Left the attorney’s fees he had incurred, both at the trial court level and on appeal.

Appellate court lifts injunction against website owner in defamation case

Pennsylvania appellate court reverses trial court’s determination that former patient agreed to never again mention doctors on gripe site.

Nevyas v. Morgan, — A.2d —-, 2007 WL 704998 (Pa.Super. March 9, 2007)[Download opinion.]

A former patient unhappy with the LASIK surgery he received started a website to warn others of the procedure’s possible dangers. The website contained allegedly defamatory statements about the LASIK doctors who performed his procedure.

lasik.jpg

An attorney for the doctors sent a cease and desist letter to the patient, threatening to file a lawsuit against him if he failed to remove the content about the doctors. The patient responded with his own letter, agreeing to “conform to [the] request insofar as to remove any stated libelous reference to the [doctors] and their practice only.” The patient went on to state that he would not remove the site in its entirety, and would continue to publish “within the legal guidelines as allowed by . . . the First Amendment.”

The patient quickly lived up to his promise. He replaced the site with an earlier version that made no reference to the doctors at all. Nonetheless, a few days after that, the hosting provider removed the site at the doctors’ request.

Understandably perturbed by the deletion of his website, the patient got a new web host and reposted the version of the site containing the references to the doctors. A few months later, the doctors filed suit. As one would expect, the doctors sued for defamation, but they also sued for breach of contract and sought specific performance. They argued that by posting the earlier version of the site (which made no mention of the doctors) in response to the cease and desist letter, the patient entered an agreement to never again mention the doctors in any manner, whether defamatory or not.

The case went to trial on the claim for specific performance, and the court ruled in the doctors’ favor. It found that the parties had entered into an agreement whereby in exchange for the doctors not filing a lawsuit against the patient, the patient would remove all defamatory statements about the doctors from the site and refrain from defaming them in the future. But the trial court’s order went a bit further — it forbade the patient from mentioning the doctors at all.

On appeal, the court vacated the lower court’s order and remanded for further proceedings. The appellate court held that the trial court was correct that the actions of the patient in response to the cease and desist letter constituted an agreement to remove the defamatory content already on the site . But the appellate court also held that the patient’s action of uploading the original website, which contained no reference to the doctors, did not constitute an agreement on his part to never again mention them. Rather, the court held, the letter the patient sent in response to the cease and desist letter reserved the right to continue to update the site to mention the doctors.

Because the trial court did not consider whether the statements on the later version of the website were the same as what the patient had agreed to remove (or were otherwise defamatory), the case was remanded for further proceedings to consider that question.