Communications Decency Act shields Backpage from liability for violation of federal sex trafficking law


Three Jane Doe plaintiffs, who alleged they were victims of sex trafficking, filed suit against online classified ad provider (“Backpage”), asserting that Backpage violated the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (“TVPRA”) by structuring its website to facilitate sex trafficking and implementing rules and processes designed to actually encourage sex trafficking.

The district court dismissed the TVPRA claims for failure to state a claim, holding that the Communications Decency Act, at 47 U.S.C. §230, provided immunity from the claims. Plaintiffs sought review with the First Circuit. On appeal, the court affirmed the lower court’s dismissal.

Section 230 principally shields website operators from being “treated as the publisher or speaker” of material posted by users of the site. In this case, the court held that plaintiffs’ claims were barred because the TVPRA claims “necessarily require[d] that the defendant be treated as the publisher or speaker of content provide by another.” Since the plaintiffs were trafficked by means of the third party advertisements on Backpage, there was no harm to them but for the content of the postings.

The court rejected plaintiffs’ attempts to characterize Backpage’s actions as “an affirmative course of conduct” distinct from the exercise of the “traditional publishing or editorial functions” of a website owner. The choice of what words or phrases to be displayed on the site, the decision not to reduce misinformation by changing its policies, and the decisions in structuring its website and posting requirements, in the court’s view, were traditional publisher functions entitled to Section 230 protection.

Does v., LLC, No. 15-1724 (1st Cir., March 14, 2016)

Evan Brown is a Chicago attorney advising enterprises on important aspects of technology law, including software development, technology and content licensing, and general privacy issues.

See also:
Seventh Circuit sides with Backpage in free speech suit against sheriff

Website operator was too involved with development of content to be immune under Section 230

Defendant started up a website to — in her own words — provide a place for others to have a dialogue and post information about their experiences at Plaintiff’s youth drug rehab facilities. Plaintiff found the content of Defendant’s website offensive, and sued for defamation and intentional interference with prospective economic advantage. Defendant filed a motion to strike under California’s Anti-SLAPP law. The court denied the motion.

In denying the Anti-SLAPP motion, the court found, among other things, that Plaintiff had established a probability of prevailing on most of its claims. This chance of prevailing withstood Defendant’s argument that she was shielded from liability by the Communications Decency Act.

This Act provides 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.” 47 U.S.C. § 230(c)(1).

Defendant acknowledged that her defense was relevant only to the extent that she was alleging that comments by third parties on her website were defamatory.

She quoted Batzel v. Smith, 333 F.3d 1018 (9th Cir. 2008) to assert that “the exclusion of ‘publisher’ liability necessarily precludes liability for exercising the usual prerogative of publishers to choose among proffered material and to edit the material published while retaining its basic form and message.” She argued that she was entitled to Section 230 immunity because she was an exempt publisher — she either simply posted others’ statements or made minor edits to those statements before posting.

The court did not agree with Defendant’s characterization of her publishing activities.

It found that her posts would not lead a visitor to believe that she was quoting third parties. Rather, in the court’s view, Defendant adopted the statements of others and used them to create her comments on the website. She posted her own articles, and summarized the statements of others.

Moreover, Defendant did more than simply post whatever information third parties provided. She elicited statements through two surveys that contained specific questions to gather information about specific issues. The court found this to disqualify Defendant from Section 230 immunity under the holding of Fair Housing Council v., LLC, 521 F.3d 1157 (9th Cir. 2008) (wherein the website operator was not immune under the Communications Decency Act because it created discriminatory questions and choice of answers).

Diamond Ranch Academy, Inc. v. Filer, 2016 WL 633351 (D. Utah, February 17, 2016)

Evan Brown is a Chicago attorney advising enterprises on important aspects of technology law, including software development, technology and content licensing, and general privacy issues.

On avoiding anxiety-inducing words in online terms of service


Are “worldwide” “perpetual” rights really necessary?

Designer/developer Robert Nealan wrote a post questioning whether self-hosted blogging is dead. The piece is interesting as a commentary on the current state of blogging in general — a state that has changed a lot in the past decade or more, primarily due to the influences of outside social platforms, namely, Twitter, and more recently, as Robert notes and critiques, Medium.

The piece is a refreshing singing of praise for self-hosted blogs (like the one you’re reading). But another, no less important element of the post is an undercurrent shaped by a not-unjustified freak out of sorts over what third party platforms’ online terms of service say about their claim of rights in the users’ intellectual property. When we look to the terms of service for some of these platforms (and even more so if we actually think about what those terms say), we recognize that platforms quite often over-aggressively grab onto rights to do things with the content the user posts. So much depends on how these terms of service are written.

Lawyers can learn a lot from the commentary like that Robert Nealan has posted. As an object lesson and example, he takes issue with Svbtle’s terms, particularly the following:

Marketing. As a paid customer, you give Svbtle a perpetual world-wide license to use your company’s assets and logos, unless Svbtle agrees in writing otherwise. These assets and logos will be used purely for marketing and sales efforts, such as being displayed on the home page.

Good practice here would might consider adopting the ethos of certain “by design” concepts we see in the privacy and data security world. Think of “privacy by design” or “security by design” — the idea that a technology developer (e.g., someone building an app) should build the system in a way that it does not keep data around for longer than what is needed, and certainly for no longer than what the developer promises its users it will.

The same could be applied here — and it seems even simpler — for platforms to adopt principles establishing they will only exercise rights in relation to users’ intellectual property for only as long as they meaningfully need to do so. Let’s call it “Appropriate Rights by Design“. Words like “perpetual” and “world-wide” can be frightening. A platform hosting users’ content probably doesn’t need such extensive rights. If that’s the case, then the platform shouldn’t grab those rights. Those terms can be a red-herring. Robert Nealan took comfort in his piece in Medium’s terms which say that users of Medium “own the rights to the content [they] post on Medium,” and that Medium “[doesn’t claim ownership over any of it.” Funny thing is, a platform that grabs a world-wide, perpetual license could truthfully say the very same thing. So by not grabbing more rights than necessary, i.e., applying principles of Appropriate Rights by Design,  platforms will avoid having users latch on to scary words unnecessarily. For as long as this happens, it’s likely users will continue to have anxiety about moving to a third-party hosted platform, and in the same way, keep a light shining on what’s good about self-hosted blogs and other platforms.

Evan Brown is a Chicago attorney advising enterprises on important aspects of technology law, including software development, technology and content licensing, and general privacy issues.

Photo courtesy Flickr user fady habib under this Creative Commons license.

Right of publicity case against Shaquille O’Neal over a photo he tweeted and posted to Instagram moves forward


A federal court has held that a plaintiff has successfully pled a claim of “appropriation” (essentially, right of publicity claim) against former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal, for Shaq’s use of plaintiff’s photo on Twitter and Instagram. The case is useful inasmuch as it shows how courts will consider social media as providing a benefit to its user.

Shaq acquired a photo of plaintiff, who suffers from a condition that affects his hair, skin and teeth, then placed a photo of himself making a contorted face next to the photo, apparently to imitate the way plaintiff appeared. Given that Shaq has millions of followers, this garnered many, many likes and comments. (I of course won’t republish the image here, but if you really want to see it, just do a Google Image search using the parties’ last names.)

Plaintiff sued under several theories, including intentional infliction of emotional distress, appropriation, and unjust enrichment. Shaq moved to dismiss most of the claims. The court did throw out some of the claims (e.g., negligence — plaintiff has pled Shaq acted intentionally). On the appropriation claim, the court, applying Michigan law, held that Shaq had made use of the plaintiff’s name or likeness for his own purposes and benefit. The court rejected Shaq’s argument that plaintiff lacked any pecuniary interest in his identify, holding that the tort of appropriation under Michigan law “is not limited to commercial appropriation” and “applies also when the defendant makes use of the plaintiff’s name or likeness for his own purposes and benefit, even though the use is not a commercial one, and even though the benefit sought to be obtained is not a pecuniary one.”

The court went on to clarify that even if the tort of appropriation under Michigan law did require a plaintiff to demonstrate a significant commercial or pecuniary interest in his identity, plaintiff’s case still survived the motion to dismiss. “[A] plaintiff need not be a national celebrity to demonstrate significant commercial value.”

Binion v. O’Neal, No. NO. 15-60869, 2016 WL 111344 (S.D. Fla., Jan. 11, 2016).

Evan Brown is a Chicago attorney advising enterprises on important aspects of technology law, including software development, technology and content licensing, and general privacy issues.

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