Section 230 shields Google from liability for anonymous defamation

Black v. Google Inc., 2010 WL 3746474 (N.D.Cal. September 20, 2010)

Back in August, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California dismissed a lawsuit against Google brought by two pro se plaintiffs, holding that the action was barred under the immunity provisions of 47 USC 230. That section says 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.” Plaintiffs had complained about a comment on Google (probably a review) disparaging their roofing business.

Plaintiffs filed and “objection” to the dismissal, which the court read as a motion to alter or amend under Fed. R. Civ. P. 59. The court denied plaintiffs’ motion.

In their “objection,” plaintiffs claimed — apparently without much support — that Congress did not intend Section 230 to apply in situations involving anonymous speech. The court did not buy this argument.

The court looked to the Ninth Circuit case of Carafano v. Metrosplash as an example of a website operator protected under Section 230 from liability for anonymous content: “To be sure, the website [in Carafano] provided neutral tools, which the anonymous dastard used to publish the libel, but the website did absolutely nothing to encourage the posting of defamatory content.” As in Carafano, Google was a passive conduit and could not be liable for failing to detect and remove the allegedly defamatory content.

Yelp successful in defamation and deceptive acts and practices case

Reit v. Yelp, Inc., — N.Y.S.2d —, 2010 WL 3490167 (September 2, 2010)

Section 230 of Communications Decency Act shielded site as interactive computer service; assertions regarding manipulation of reviews was not consumer oriented and therefore not actionable.

As I am sure you know, Yelp! is an interactive website designed to allow the general public to write, post, and view reviews about businesses, including professional ones, as well as restaurants and other establishments.

Lots of people and businesses that are the subject of negative reviews on sites like this get riled up and often end up filing lawsuits. Suits against website operators in cases like this are almost always unsuccessful. The case of Reit v. Yelp from a New York state court was no exception.

Plaintiff dentist sued Yelp and an unknown reviewer for defamation. He also sued Yelp under New York state law for “deceptive acts and practices”. Yelp moved to dismiss both claims. The court granted the motion.

Defamation claim – protection under Section 230

Interactive computer service providers are immunized from liability (i.e., they cannot be held responsible) for content that is provided by third parties. So long as the website is not an “information content provider” itself, any claim made against the website will be preempted by the Communications Decency Act, at 47 U.S.C. 230.

In this case, plaintiff claimed that Yelp selectively removed positive reviews of his dentistry practice after he contacted Yelp to complain about a negative reivew. He argued that this action made Yelp an information content provider (doing more than “simply selecting material for publication”) and therefore outside the scope of Section 230’s immunity. The court rejected this argument.

It likened the case to an earlier New York decision called Shiamili v. Real Estate Group of New York. In that case, like this one, an allegation that a website operator may keep and promote bad content did not raise an inference that it becomes an information content provider. The postings do not cease to be data provided by a third party merely because the construct and operation of the website might have some influence on the content of the postings.

So the court dismissed the defamation claim on grounds of Section 230 immunity.

Alleged deceptive acts and practices were not consumer oriented

The other claim against Yelp — for deceptive acts and practices — was intriguing, though the court did not let it stand. Plaintiff alleged that Yelp’s Business Owner’s Guide says that once a business signs up for advertsing with Yelp, an “entirely automated” system screens out reviews that are written by less established users.

The problem with this, plaintiff claimed, was that the process was not automated with the help of algorithms, but was done by humans at Yelp. That divergence between what the Business Owner’s Guide said and Yelps actual practices, plaintiff claimed, was consumer-oriented conduct that was materially misleading, in violation of New York’s General Business Law Section 349(a).

This claim failed, however, because the court found that the statements made by Yelp in the Business Owner’s Guide were not consumer-oriented, but were addressed to business owners like plaintiff. Without being a consumer-oriented statement, it did not violate the statute.

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Communications Decency Act immunizes hosting provider from defamation liability

Johnson v. Arden, — F.3d —, 2010 WL 3023660 (8th Cir. August 4, 2010)

The Johnsons sell exotic cats. They filed a defamation lawsuit after discovering that some other cat-fanciers said mean things about them on Complaintsboard.com. Among the defendants was the company that hosted Complaintsboard.com – InMotion Hosting.

Sassy is my parents' cat. She hisses whenever I'm around, though they say she's a nice cat otherwise.

The district court dismissed the case against the hosting company, finding that the Communications Decency Act at 47 U.S.C. §230 (“Section 230”) immunized the hosting provider from liability. The Johnsons sought review with the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. On appeal, the court affirmed the dismissal.

Though Section 230 immunity has been around since 1996, this was the first time the Eighth Circuit had been presented with the question.

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.” It also says that “[n]o cause of action may be brought and no liability may be imposed under any State or local law that is inconsistent with this section.”

The Johnsons argued that Section 230 did not immunize the hosting company. Instead, they argued, it did just what it says – provides that a party in the position of the hosting company should not be treated as a publisher or speaker of information provided by third parties. The Johnsons argued that the host should be liable in this case regardless of Section 230, because under Missouri law, defendants can be jointly liable when they commit a wrong by concert of action and with common intent and purpose.

The court rejected the Johnsons’ argument, holding that Section 230 bars plaintiffs from making providers legally responsible for information that third parties created and developed. Adopting the Fourth Circuit’s holding in Nemet Chevrolet v. Consumeraffiars.com, the court held that “Congress thus established a general rule that providers of interactive computer services are liable only for speech that is properly attributable to them.”

No evidence in the record showed how the offending posts could be attributed to the hosting provider. It was undisputed that the host did not originate the material that the Johnsons deemed damaging.

Given this failure to show the content originated with the provider, the court found in favor of robust immunity, joining with the majority of other federal circuits that have addressed intermediary liability in the context of Section 230.

Forwarder of defamatory email protected under Section 230

Hung Tan Phan v. Lang Van Pham, — Cal.Rptr.3d —, 2010 WL 658244 (Cal.App. 4 Dist. Feb. 25, 2010)

Defendant, a veteran of the Vietnamese military, forwarded an email to some other Vietmamese veterans which apparently defamed another veteran. He didn’t just forward the email, though. He added some commentary at the beginning, which said (translated from the original Vietnamese):

Everything will come out to the daylight, I invite you and our classmates to read the following comments of Senior Duc (Duc Xuan Nguyen) President of the Federation of Associations of the Republic of Vietnam Navy and Merchant Marine.

The person who was the subject of the defamatory email sued the forwarder. The trial court dismissed the case, holding that the defendant was immune from liability under the Communications Decency Act at 47 U.S.C. 230.

That section gives immunity from suit to users and providers of interactive computer services who are distributing information provided by a third party. More than three years ago, in Barrett v. Rosenthal, the California Supreme Court held that Section 230 immunity applies to one who further distributes the contents of a defamatory email message.

The plaintiff sought review with the California Court of Appeal. The court affirmed.

The court looked to the Roommates.com case, to which it attributed a test that requires a defendant’s own acts to materially contribute to the illegality of the internet message for Section 230 immunity to be lost.

In this case, the court held that the introductory remarks did not meet the material contribution test articulated in Roommates.com. The court found that “[a]ll [the defendant] said was: The truth will come out in the end. What will be will be. Whatever.”

Email ribbon photo courtesy Flickr user Mzelle Biscotte under this Creative Commons License

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