Website operators not liable for third party comments

Spreadbury v. Bitterroot Public Library, 2012 WL 734163 (D. Montana, March 6, 2012)

Plaintiff was upset at some local government officials, and ended up getting arrested for allegedly trespassing at the public library. Local newspapers covered the story, including on their websites. Some online commenters said mean things about plaintiff, so plaintiff sued a whole slew of defendants, including the newspapers (as website operators).

The court threw out the claims over the online comments. It held that the Communications Decency Act at 47 U.S.C. 230 immunized the website operators from liability over the third party content.

Defendant argued that the websites were not protected by Section 230 because they were not “providers of interactive computer services” of the same ilk as AOL and Yahoo. The court soundly rejected that argument. It found that the websites provided a “neutral tool” and offered a “simple generic prompt” for subscribers to comment about articles. The website operators did not develop or select the comments, require or encourage readers to make defamatory statements, or edit comments to make them defamatory.

Six interesting technology law issues raised in the Facebook IPO

Patent trolls, open source, do not track, SOPA, PIPA and much, much more: Facebook’s IPO filing has a real zoo of issues.

The securities laws require that companies going public identify risk factors that could adversely affect the company’s stock. Facebook’s S-1 filing, which it sent to the SEC today, identified almost 40 such factors. A number of these risks are examples of technology law issues that almost any internet company would face, particularly companies whose product is the users.

(1) Advertising regulation. In providing detail about the nature of this risk, Facebook mentions “adverse legal developments relating to advertising, including legislative and regulatory developments” and “the impact of new technologies that could block or obscure the display of our ads and other commercial content.” Facebook is likely concerned about the various technological and legal restrictions on online behavioral advertising, whether in the form of mandatory opportunities for users to opt-out of data collection or or the more aggressive “do not track” idea. The value of the advertising is of course tied to its effectiveness, and any technological, regulatory or legislative measures to enhance user privacy is a risk to Facebook’s revenue.

(2) Data security. No one knows exactly how much information Facebook has about its users. Not only does it have all the content uploaded by its 845 million users, it has the information that could be gleaned from the staggering 100 billion friendships among those users. [More stats] A data breach puts Facebook at risk of a PR backlash, regulatory investigations from the FTC, and civil liability to its users for negligence and other causes of action. But Facebook would not be left without remedy, having in its arsenal civil actions under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the Stored Communications Act (among other laws) against the perpetrators. It is also likely the federal government would step in to enforce the criminal provisions of these acts as well.

(3) Changing laws. The section of the S-1 discussing this risk factor provides a laundry list of the various issues that online businesses face. Among them: user privacy, rights of publicity, data protection, intellectual property, electronic contracts, competition, protection of minors, consumer protection, taxation, and online payment services. Facebook is understandably concerned that changes to any of these areas of the law, anywhere in the world, could make doing business more expensive or, even worse, make parts of the service unlawful. Though not mentioned by name here, SOPA, PIPA, and do-not-track legislation are clearly in Facebook’s mind when it notes that “there have been a number of recent legislative proposals in the United States . . . that would impose new obligations in areas such as privacy and liability for copyright infringement by third parties.”

(4) Intellectual property protection. The company begins its discussion of this risk with a few obvious observations, namely, how the company may be adversely affected if it is unable to secure trademark, copyright or patent registration for its various intellectual property assets. Later in the disclosure, though, Facebook says some really interesting things about open source:

As a result of our open source contributions and the use of open source in our products, we may license or be required to license innovations that turn out to be material to our business and may also be exposed to increased litigation risk. If the protection of our proprietary rights is inadequate to prevent unauthorized use or appropriation by third parties, the value of our brand and other intangible assets may be diminished and competitors may be able to more effectively mimic our service and methods of operations.

(5) Patent troll lawsuits. Facebook notes that internet and technology companies “frequently enter into litigation based on allegations of infringement, misappropriation, or other violations of intellectual property or other rights.” But it goes on to give special attention to those “non-practicing entities” (read: patent trolls) “that own patents and other intellectual property rights,” which “often attempt to aggressively assert their rights in order to extract value from technology companies.” Facebook believes that as its profile continues to rise, especially in the glory of its IPO, it will increasingly become the target of patent trolls. For now it does not seem worried: “[W]e do not believe that the final outcome of intellectual property claims that we currently face will have a material adverse effect on our business.” Instead, those endeavors are a suck on resources: “[D]efending patent and other intellectual property claims is costly and can impose a significant burden on management and employees….” And there is also the risk that these lawsuits might turn out badly, and Facebook would have to pay judgments, get licenses, or develop workarounds.

(6) Tort liability for user-generated content. Facebook acknowledges that it faces, and will face, claims relating to information that is published or made available on the site by its users, including claims concerning defamation, intellectual property rights, rights of publicity and privacy, and personal injury torts. Though it does not specifically mention the robust immunity from liability over third party content provided by 47 U.S.C. 230, Facebook indicates a certain confidence in the protections afforded by U.S. law from tort liability. It is the international scene that gives Facebook concern here: “This risk is enhanced in certain jurisdictions outside the United States where our protection from liability for third-party actions may be unclear and where we may be less protected under local laws than we are in the United States.”

You have to hand it to the teams of professionals who have put together Facebook’s IPO filing. I suppose the billions of dollars at stake can serve as a motivation for thoroughness. In any event, the well-articulated discussion of these risks in the S-1 is an interesting read, and can serve to guide the many lesser-valued companies out there.

Video: my appearance on the news talking about isanyoneup.com

Last night I appeared in a piece that aired on the 9 o’clock news here in Chicago, talking about the legal issues surrounding isanyoneup.com. (That site is definitely NSFW and I’m not linking to it because it doesn’t deserve the page rank help.) The site presents some interesting legal questions, like whether and to what extent it is shielded by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act for the harm that arises from the content it publishes (I don’t think it is shielded completely). The site also engages in some pretty blatant copyright infringement, and does not enjoy safe harbor protection under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Here’s the video:

Amazon and other booksellers off the hook for sale of Obama drug use book

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act shields Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million from some, but not all claims brought over promotion and sale of scandalous book about presidential candidate.

Parisi v. Sinclair, — F.Supp.2d —, 2011 WL 1206193 (D.D.C. March 31, 2011)

In 2008, Larry Sinclair made the ultra-scandalous claim that he had done drugs and engaged in sexual activity with then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. Daniel Parisi, owner of the infamous Whitehouse.com website, challenged Sinclair to take a polygraph test.

Not satisfied with the attention his outlandish claims had garnered, Sinclair self-published a book detailing his alleged misadventures. The book was available through print-on-demand provider Lightening Source.

Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million (“BAM”) each offered Sinclair’s book for sale through their respective websites. (Barnes & Noble and BAM did not sell the book at their brick and mortar stores.) Each company’s website promoted the book using the following sentence:

You’ll read how the Obama campaign used internet porn king Dan Parisi and Ph.D. fraud Edward I. Gelb to conduct a rigged polygraph exam in an attempt to make the Sinclair story go away.

Parisi and his Whitehouse Network sued for, among other things, defamation and false light invasion of privacy. BAM moved to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) while Amazon and Barnes & Noble moved for summary judgment. The court granted the booksellers’ motions.

Section 230 applied because booksellers were not information content providers

The booksellers’ primary argument was that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act shielded them from liability for plaintiffs’ claims concerning the promotional sentence. The court found in defendants’ favor on this point.

Section 230 provides in relevant part 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 major issue in this case was whether the online booksellers had provided the information comprising the promotional sentence. The court found that the pleadings (as to BAM) and the evidence (as to Amazon and Barnes & Noble) did not credibly dispute that the booksellers did not create and develop the promotional sentence.

But not so fast, Section 230, on some of those other claims!

The court’s treatment of Section 230 in relation to plaintiffs’ false light claim and the claims relating to the actual sale of the book were even more intriguing.

Plaintiffs argued that their false light claim was essentially a right of publicity claim. And Section 230(e)(2) says that immunity does not apply to claims pertaining to intellectual property. There is some confusion as to whether this exception to immunity applies only to federal intellectual property claims or to both federal and state IP claims. On one hand, Perfect 10, Inc. v. CCBill says that only federal intellectual property claims are excepted from immunity (which would mean that state law IP claims would be barred by Section 230). On the other hand, cases like Atlantic Recording Corp. v. Project Playlist, Doe v. Friendfinder Network and Universal Communication System v. Lycos suggest that both state and federal IP claims should withstand a Section 230 challenge.

In this case, the court indicated that it would have sided with the cases that provide for both federal and state claims making it past Section 230: “I am not inclined to extend the scope of the CDA immunity as far as the Ninth Circuit. . . . ”

But ultimately the court did not need to take sides as to the scope of Section 230(e)(2), as it found the use of plaintiff Parisi’s name fit into the newsworthiness privilege. One cannot successfully assert a misappropriation claim when his name or likeness is used in a newsworthy publication unless the use has “no real relationship” to the subject matter of the publication.

The court also seemed to constrain Section 230 immunity as it related to the online booksellers’ liability for selling the actual book. (Remember, the discussion above, in which the court found immunity to apply, dealt with the promotional sentence.) The court rejected defendants’ arguments that the reasoning of Gentry v. eBay should protect them. In Gentry, eBay was afforded immunity from violation of a warranty statute. But it merely provided the forum for the sale of goods, unlike the online booksellers in this case, which were the distributors of the actual allegedly defamatory book.

Even though Section 230 did not serve to protect BAM, Barnes & Noble and Amazon from liability for defamation arising from sales of the book, the court dismissed the defamation claim because of the lack of a showing that the booksellers acted with actual malice. It was undisputed that the plaintiffs were limited-purpose public figures. Persons with that status must show that the defendant acted with actual malice. That standard was not met here.

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