Google and YouTube protected by Section 230

The case of Weerahandi v. Shelesh is a classic example of how Section 230 (a provision of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), found at 47 USC 230) shielded online intermediaries from alleged tort liability occasioned by their users.

Background Facts

Plaintiff was a YouTuber and filed a pro se lawsuit for, among other things, defamation, against a number of other YouTubers as well as Google and YouTube. The allegations arose from a situation back in 2013 in which one of the individual defendants sent what plaintiff believed to be a “false and malicious” DMCA takedown notice to YouTube. One of the defendants later took the contact information plaintiff had to provide in the counter-notification and allegedly disseminated that information to others who were alleged to have published additional defamatory YouTube videos.

Google and YouTube also got named as defendants for “failure to remove the videos” and for not taking “corrective action”. These parties moved to dismiss the complaint, claiming immunity under Section 230. The court granted the motion to dismiss.

Section 230’s Protections

Section 230 provides, in pertinent 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.” 47 U.S.C. § 230(c)(1). Section 230 also provides 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.” 47 U.S.C. § 230(e)(3).

The CDA also “proscribes liability in situations where an interactive service provider makes decisions ‘relating to the monitoring, screening, and deletion of content from its network.’ ” Obado v. Magedson, 612 Fed.Appx. 90, 94–95 (3d Cir. 2015). Courts have recognized Congress conferred broad immunity upon internet companies by enacting the CDA, because the breadth of the internet precludes such companies from policing content as traditional media have. See Jones v. Dirty World Entm’t Recordings LLC, 755 F.3d 398, 407 (6th Cir. 2014); Batzel v Smith, 333 F.3d 1018, 1026 (9th Cir. 2003); Zeran v. Am. Online, Inc., 129 F.3d 327, 330 (4th 1997); DiMeo v. Max, 433 F. Supp. 2d 523, 528 (E.D. Pa. 2006).

How Section 230 Applied Here

In this case, the court found that the CDA barred plaintiff’s claims against Google and YouTube. Both Google and YouTube were considered “interactive computer service[s].” Parker v. Google, Inc., 422 F. Supp. 2d 492, 551 (E.D. Pa. 2006). Plaintiff did not allege that Google or YouTube played any role in producing the allegedly defamatory content. Instead, Plaintiff alleged both websites failed to remove the defamatory content, despite his repeated requests.

Plaintiff did not cite any authority in his opposition to Google and YouTube’s motion, and instead argued that the CDA did not bar claims for the “failure to remove the videos” or to “take corrective action.” The court held that to the contrary, the CDA expressly protected internet companies from such liability. Under the CDA, plaintiff could not assert a claim against Google or YouTube for decisions “relating to the monitoring, screening, and deletion of content from its network. ” Obado, 612 Fed.Appx. at 94–95 (3d Cir. 2015); 47 U.S.C. § 230(c)(1) (“No 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.”). For these reasons, the court found the CDA barred plaintiff’s claims against Google and YouTube.

Weerahandi v. Shelesh, 2017 WL 4330365 (D.N.J. September 29, 2017)

Evan_BrownAbout the Author: Evan Brown is a Chicago technology and intellectual property attorney. Call Evan at (630) 362-7237, send email to ebrown [at] internetcases.com, or follow him on Twitter @internetcases. Read Evan’s other blog, UDRP Tracker, for information about domain name disputes.

Quora gets Section 230 victory in the Tenth Circuit

Pro se plaintiff Silver filed suit in federal court in New Mexico against the online question-and-answer website Quora, alleging that statements made by two different individuals concerning his professional services were defamatory. Quora moved to dismiss, arguing that the immunity provisions of the Communications Decency Act, at 47 U.S.C. 230 shielded it from liability arising from content posted by its users. The district court granted the motion to dismiss. Plaintiff sought review with the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. On review, the court affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of the case.

Citing to its previous Section 230 precedent, Ben Ezra, Weinstein, & Co. v. Am. Online Inc., 206 F.3d 980 (10th Cir. 2000), the court held that Quora was a provider of “an interactive computer service,” that its actions forming the basis of alleged liability, namely, in hosting the content, were that of a “publisher or speaker,” and that the content giving rise to the alleged liability was from “another information content provider,” i.e., the users who posted the content.

Silver v. Quora, Inc., 2016 WL 6892146 (10th Circuit, November 23, 2016)

Evan_BrownAbout the Author: Evan Brown is a Chicago technology and intellectual property attorney. Call Evan at (630) 362-7237, send email to ebrown [at] internetcases.com, or follow him on Twitter @internetcases. Read Evan’s other blog, UDRP Tracker, for information about domain name disputes.

Donald Trump wins smackdown victory in defamation and tortious interference lawsuit over domain name dispute

Donald Trump filed a UDRP action against plaintiff Stevens over plaintiff’s registration of the domain name TrumpEstates.com. While that action was pending, plaintiff filed a lawsuit against Trump, his organization, and his lawyers, asserting claims of defamation, tortious interference with business relations, and also seeking a declaratory judgment concerning cybersquatting.

Trump moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. The court granted the motion and dismissed the action with prejudice.

The defamation claim failed because plaintiff had established a website at the disputed domain name that provided a link to a New York Post article that republished the report of the defamatory allegations, namely, that plaintiff had violated the law and had committed cybersquatting by registering the disputed domain name. This claim failed under New York law because words voluntarily disseminated to the world by the party allegedly aggrieved cannot, by definition, be found defamatory.

The tortious interference claim failed because plaintiff did not identify any third party with which it had a business relationship, let alone one with which the Trump defendants interfered and injured.

Plaintiff’s claim for declaratory judgment sought an order from the court holding that plaintiff had not improperly registered the domain name. The court found that plaintiff did not offer any factual allegations of he acted in good faith when he registered the disputed domain name. Instead, plaintiff actually admitted that his business centered around the reselling of domain names. Federal law recognizes it to be an indication of bad faith when it offers to transfer, sell, or otherwise assign a domain name to the mark owner or any third party for financial gain without having used, or having an intent to use, the domain name in a bona fide offering of any goods or services. (In this case, the disputed domain name had been advertised as being for sale for $400,000.)

The case can be properly characterized as a “smackdown” because the court dismissed the action with prejudice, meaning that plaintiff does not have the opportunity to refile the deficient complaint. The court added some gloss on the part of the opinion where it determined that leave to amend it would be improper. It noted that the “network of regulations” that protect trademark owners’ interests in domain names makes “crystal clear that, even in cyberspace, the TRUMP mark is entitled to regulatory protection fair and square.” The court went on to note that it was inconceivable that plaintiff could, as the silence of his papers emphasized, plead any facts that would entitle him to co-opt the Trump name.

Stephens v. Trump, 2016 WL 4702437 (E.D.N.Y., September 7, 2016)

Evan_BrownAbout the Author: Evan Brown is a Chicago technology and intellectual property attorney. Call Evan at (630) 362-7237, send email to ebrown [at] internetcases.com, or follow him on Twitter @internetcases. Read Evan’s other blog, UDRP Tracker, for information about domain name disputes.

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. Roommates.com, 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.

Newspaper not liable for alleged defamatory letter to editor published online

The Appellate Court of Illinois has sided in favor of a local newspaper in a defamation lawsuit brought against the paper over a reader’s allegedly defamatory letter to the editor. The court held that the Communciations Decency Act (at 47 U.S.C. 230) “absolved” the newspaper of liability over this appearance of third party content on the newspaper’s website.

Plaintiff — a lawyer and self-identified civil rights advocate — sent several letters to local businesses claiming those businesses did not have enough handicapped parking spaces. Instead of merely asking the businesses to create those parking spaces, he demanded each one pay him $5,000 or face a lawsuit.

One local resident thought plaintiff’s demands were greedy and extortionate, and wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper covering the story. The newspaper posted the letter online. Both the newspaper and the letter’s author found themselves as defendants in plaintiff’s defamation lawsuit.

The letter-writer settled with plaintiff, but the newspaper stayed in as a defendant and moved to dismiss, arguing that federal law immunized it from liability for content provided by the third party letter-writer.

The lower court dismissed the defamation claim against the newspaper, holding that the Communications Decency Act (at 47 U.S.C. §230) protected the newspaper from liability for the third party letter-writer’s comments posted on the newspaper’s website.

Plaintiff sought review with the Appellate Court of Illinois. On appeal, the court affirmed the dismissal.

The Communications Decency Act (at 47 U.S.C §230(c)(1)) 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.” The appellate court found that the leter-writer was another information content provider that placed comments on the newspaper’s website. Therefore, it held that the Communications Decency Act “absolved” the newspaper from responsibility.

Straw v. Streamwood Chamber of Commerce, 2015 IL App (1st) 143094-U (September 29, 2015)

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago helping clients manage issues involving technology and new media.

Complaint site does not have to identify its users

Petitioner filed an action in New York state court seeking to compel PissedConsumer.com to disclose the identity of the person or persons who posted certain statements to the site. These statements criticized petitioner for allegedly failing to fulfill an advertising promise to give the user a $500 gas card. The anonymous user went on to complain that petitioner “will forget about you and … all the promises they made to you” once “you sign on the dotted line.”

The trial court denied the petition to compel PissedConsumer.com to turn over the names of its users. Petitioner sought review with the Appellate Division. On appeal, the court affirmed.

It held that the lower court properly denied the petition since petitioner failed to demonstrate that it had a meritorious cause of action as required to obtain pre-action discovery:

Nothing in the petition identifies specific facts that are false and when the statements complained of are viewed in context, they suggest to a reasonable reader that the writer was a dissatisfied customer who utilized respondent’s consumers’ grievance website to express an opinion. Although some of the statements are based on undisclosed, unfavorable facts known to the writer, the disgruntled tone, anonymous posting, and predominant use of statements that cannot be definitively proven true or false, supports the finding that the challenged statements are only susceptible of a non-defamatory meaning, grounded in opinion.

The court seemed to recognize the importance of anonymous speech, and that one must not lightly cast aside its protections. If you’re going to go after an online critic, best have a cause of action that you can actually plead.

Woodbridge Structured Funding, LLC v. Pissed Consumer, — N.Y.S.2d —, 2015 WL 686383, (February 19, 2015)

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago helping clients with technology, intellectual property and new media issues.

Court orders Twitter to identify anonymous users

Defamation plaintiffs’ need for requested information outweighed any impact on Doe defendants’ free speech right to tweet anonymously.

Plaintiff company and its CEO sued several unknown defendants who tweeted that plaintiff company encouraged domestic violence and misogyny and that the CEO visited prostitutes. The court allowed plaintiffs to serve subpoenas on Twitter to seek the identity of the unknown Twitter users. Twitter would not comply with the subpoenas unless and until the court ruled on whether the production of information would violate the users’ First Amendment rights.

The court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered Twitter to turn over identifying information about the unknown users. In reaching this decision, the court applied the Ninth Circuit analysis for unmasking anonymous internet speakers set out in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, 591 F.3d. 1126 (9th Cir. 2009). The court found that the requested discovery raised the possibility of “arguable first amendment infringement,” so it continued its analysis by weighing the balance between the aggrieved plaintiffs’ interests with the anonymous defendants’ free speech rights.

The Perry balancing test places a burden on the party seeking discovery to show that the information sought is rationally related to a compelling governmental interest and that the requested discovery is the least restrictive means of obtaining the desired information.

In this case, the court found that the subpoenas were narrowly tailored to plaintiffs’ need to uncover the identities of the anonymous defendants so that plaintiffs could serve process. It also found that the “nature” of defendants’ speech weighed in favor of enforcing the subpoena. The challenged speech went “beyond criticism into what appear[ed] to be pure defamation, ostensibly unrelated to normal corporate activity.”

Music Group Macao Commercial Offshore Ltd. v. Does I-IX, 2015 WL 75073 (N.D. Cal., January 6, 2015).

Sixth Circuit holds thedirty.com entitled to Section 230 immunity

Plaintiff Jones (a high school teacher and Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader) sued the website thedirty.com and its operator for defamation over a number of third party posts that said mean things about plaintiff. Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that the Communications Decency Act — 47 USC § 230(c)(1) — afforded them immunity from liability for the content created by third parties. Articulating a “goofy legal standard,” the district court denied the motion, and the case was tried twice. The first trial ended in a mistrial, and the second time the jury found in favor of plaintiff.

Defendants sought review with the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on the issue of whether whether the district court erred in denying defendants’ motion for judgment as a matter of law by holding that the CDA did not bar plaintiff’s state tort claims. On appeal, the court reversed the district court and ordered that judgment as a matter of law be entered in defendants’ favor.

Section 230(c)(1) 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.” At its core, § 230 grants immunity to defendant service providers in lawsuits seeking to hold the service provider liable for its exercise of a publisher’s traditional editorial functions—such as deciding whether to publish, withdraw, postpone or alter content.

But the grant of immunity is not without limits. It applies only to the extent that an interactive computer service provider is not also the information content provider of the content at issue. A defendant is not entitled to protection from claims based on the publication of information if the defendant is responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation or development of the information.

The district court held that “a website owner who intentionally encourages illegal or actionable third-party postings to which he adds his own comments ratifying or adopting the posts becomes a ‘creator’ or ‘developer’ of that content and is not entitled to immunity.” Thus, the district court concluded that “[d]efendants, when they re-published the matters in evidence, had the same duties and liabilities for re-publishing libelous material as the author of such materials.”

The appellate court held that the district court’s test for what constitutes “creation” or “development” was too broad. Instead, the court looked to the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Fair Hous. Council of San Fernando Valley v. Roommates.com, LLC, 521 F.3d 1157 (9th Cir. 2008) and adopted the material contribution test from that opinion:

[W]e interpret the term “development” as referring not merely to augmenting the content generally, but to materially contributing to its alleged unlawfulness. In other words, a website helps to develop unlawful content, and thus falls within the exception to section 230, if it contributes materially to the alleged illegality of the conduct.

In the Sixth Circuit’s language, “[A] material contribution to the alleged illegality of the content does not mean merely taking action that is necessary to the display of allegedly illegal content. Rather, it means being responsible for what makes the displayed content allegedly unlawful.”

In this case, the defendants did not author the statements at issue. But they did select the statements for publication. The court held that defendants did not materially contribute to the defamatory content of the statements simply because those posts were selected for publication. Moreover, the website did not require users to post illegal or actionable content as a condition of use. The website’s content submission form simply instructed users generally to submit content. The court found the tool to be neutral (both in orientation and design) as to what third parties submit. Accordingly, the website design did not constitute a material contribution to any defamatory speech that was uploaded.

Jones v. Dirty World, No. 13-5946 (6th Cir. June 16, 2014)

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago advising clients on matters dealing with technology, the internet and new media. Contact him.

Lawyer’s tweet about case was not defamatory

Plaintiff sued an attorney and his law firm for defamation over a tweet the attorney posted about one of his cases that read as follows:

[Plaintiff] runs an organization for the benefit of its officers and directors, not shareholders and employees. The RICO suit was not frivolous. The 500K lawsuit is frivolous, however, so buyer be wary.

(Defenant used Twitlonger to account for the number of characters over 140.) The trial court dismissed the defamation lawsuit on an anti-SLAPP motion. Plaintiff sought review with the Court of Appeal of California. The court affirmed the dismissal.

It found that the tweet was nonactionable opinion, holding that “deprecatory statements regarding the merits of litigation are ‘nothing more than the predictable opinion of one side to the lawsuit’ and cannot be the basis for a defamation claim.” Further, insofar as the tweet asserted “[plaintiff] runs an organization for the benefit of its officers and directors, not shareholders and employees,” the attorney was stating his subjective opinion with respect to corporate governance at the plaintiff company. Accordingly, the tweet was not actionable.

Getfugu, Inc. v. Patton Boggs LLP, 2013 WL 4494952 (Cal.App. 2 Dist. August 21, 2013)

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.

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