Tag Archives: Defamation

Anonymous sender of beer pong email gets to remain unknown

A.Z. v. Doe, 2010 WL 816647 (N.J. Super. App. Div. March 8, 2010)

What's not to love about beer pong?

Even if you do just a cursory review of cases that deal with online anonymity, you are bound to come across a 2001 New Jersey case called Dendrite v. Doe. That case sets out a four part analysis a court should undertake when a defamation plaintiff seeks an order to unmask an Internet user who posted the offending content anonymously.

Under Dendrite, a court that is asked by a defamation plaintiff to unmask an anonymous speaker must:

  • require the plaintiff to try to notify the unknown Doe speaker that he or she is the subject the unmasking efforts, and give him or her a reasonable opportunity to oppose the application;
  • require the plaintiff to identify and set forth the exact statements purportedly made by each anonymous poster that plaintiff alleges constitutes actionable speech;
  • require the plaintiff to produce sufficient evidence supporting each element of its cause of action, on a prima facie basis; and
  • balance the defendant’s First Amendment right of anonymous free speech against the strength of the prima facie case presented and the necessity for the disclosure.

The state appellate court in New Jersey recently had occasion to revisit the Dendrite analysis in a case called A.Z. v. Doe. It found that a defamation plaintiff was not entitled to learn the identity of a person who anonymously sent an email that had content and attached photos that allegedly defamed plaintiff. The court found that plaintiff failed to meet the third factor in the Dendrite analysis, i.e., failed to present a prima facie case of defamation.

Beer pong is not for honor students

Someone took pictures of plaintiff playing beer pong at a party and posted them on Facebook. That’s all in good fun, except that plaintiff was a minor and belonged to her high school’s “Cool Kids & Heroes” program. Kids get into that program by making good grades and promising to refrain from bad behavior.

A purported “concerned parent” set up a Gmail account (anonymously) and sent an email to the faculty advisor for the Cool Kids & Heroes program. The email had photos attached showing several of the program’s kids doing things they shouldn’t be doing like drinking and smoking pot. In all fairness it should be noted that the picture of plaintiff only showed her playing beer pong — it didn’t actually show her drinking or smoking, though there were cups and beer cans on the table in front of her.

The faculty advisor forwarded the email and images on to school administrators, and the school also notified the police. But law enforcement apparently took no further action.

Plaintiff filed a defamation lawsuit against the anonymous sender of the email and sent a subpoena to Google to find out the IP address from which the message was sent. Google notified plaintiff that it came from an Optimum Online IP address. So plaintiff sent a subpoena to Optimum Online for the identifying information. The ISP notified its customer Doe, and Doe moved to quash the subpoena.

The trial court granted the motion to quash, concluding that plaintiff failed to meet the fourth Dendrite factor (dealing with the First Amendment). Plaintiff sought review with the appellate court, which affirmed but on different grounds.

Why the defamation claim failed

The appellate court agreed that the motion to quash should be granted (that is, that the anonymous sender of the email message should not be identified). But the appellate court’s reasoning differed. It didn’t even need to get to the fourth Dendrite factor, because it held that plaintiff didn’t meet the third factor (didn’t present a prima facie defamation case).

The big problem with plaintiff’s defamation claim came from the requirement that the statement alleged to be defamatory (in this case, that plaintiff had broken the law) needed to be “false.” The court found five reasons why this element had not been met:

  • Plaintiff submitted no evidence (like an affidavit) that she wasn’t drinking the night the photo was taken.
  • Plaintiff submitted no evidence that law enforcement actually concluded to take no further action. Plaintiff argued their lack of action showed she didn’t break the law.
  • Even if there was evidence that law enforcement decided to take no action, that would not have been relevant to the truth of the question of whether plaintiff was drinking. That would only go to show that law enforcement decided not to do anything.
  • The photograph attached to the email showing plaintiff playing beer pong would lead one to conclude that she was in “possession” of the alcohol on the table, and that was a violation of the law.
  • Doe submitted other photos from Facebook in connection with the motion to quash which showed plaintiff actually holding a beer.

So the court never got to the question of the First Amendment and how it related to the anonymous email sender’s right to speak. The court concluded that because plaintiff had not put forth a prima facie case of defamation, the anonymous speaker should stay unknown.

Beer pong photo courtesy Flickr user elisfanclub under this Creative Commons license.

Manganese dendrites in limestone photo courtesy Flickr user Arenamontanus under this Creative Commons license.

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.

Website drives off with Section 230 win over Chevy dealer

Nemet Chevrolet sued the website Consumeraffairs.com over some posts on that website which Nemet thought were defamatory and interfered with Nemet’s business expectancy. The website moved to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming that the Communications Decency Act at 47 U.S.C. 230 immunized the website from the lawsuit.

But when we're driving in my Malibu, it's easy to get right next to you. . . . "

The court dismissed the action on Section 230 grounds and Nemet sought review of the dismissal with the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. The appellate court affirmed the dismissal.

Section 230 precludes tort plaintiffs from holding interactive computer services (like website operators) liable for the publication of information created and developed by others. Most courts (like the Fourth Circuit) consider Section 230′s protection to be a form of immunity for website operators from lawsuits arising over third party content.

But that immunity disappears if the content giving rise to the dispute was actually created or developed by the operator and not by a third party. In those circumstances the operator also becomes an information content provider. And there is no Section 230 immunity for information content providers.

That’s where Nemet steered its argument. It alleged that the website was a non-immune information content provider that created and developed the offending content.

Nemet raised two general points in its argument. It claimed that the website’s structure and design elicited unlawful content, and that the site operator contacted individual posters to assist in revisions to the content. It also claimed that the site operator simply fabricated a number of the offending posts.

Applying the pleading standards on which the Supreme Court recently elaborated in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, the court found Nemet’s claims that the site operator was actually an information content provider to be implausible.

As for the structure and design argument, the court differentiated the present facts from the situation in Fair Housing Council of San Fernando Valley v. Roommates. com. In Roommates.com, the court found that the website was designed to elicit information that would violate the Fair Housing Act. In this case, however, there was nothing unlawful in inviting commentary on goods or services, even if it was for the purposes of drumming up business for plaintiffs’ class action lawyers.

As for the other arguments, the court simply found that the allegations did not nudge the claims “across the line from conceivable to plausible.” The court found the argument that the website fabricated the posts to be particularly not creditable, in that Nemet’s allegations relied mainly on an absence of information in its own records that would connect the post to an actual customer.

On balance, this decision from the Fourth Circuit shows that Section 230 immunity is as alive and well at the end of the “oughts” as it was a dozen years before when the Fourth Circuit became the first federal appellate court to consider the scope of the section’s immunity. That 1997 decision in the case of Zeran v. AOL remains a watershed pronouncement of Section 230′s immunity.

Congratulations to my friend and fellow blogger Jonathan Frieden’s impressive win in this case.

And Happy New Year to all the readers of Internet Cases. Thanks for your continued loyal support.

Chevy Malibu photo courtesy Flickr user bea-t under this Creative Commons license.

My Public Radio debut

Had a great time talking about anonymity and the First Amendment with Sheilah Kast of Baltimore’s 88.1 FM WYPR on today’s Maryland Morning. I talked about the court’s analysis in the recent case of Independent Newspapers, Inc. v. Brodie (which I wrote about here).

Listen to the interview here:

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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.

Google doesn’t have to pay $50 billion to defamation plaintiff

Steele v. Mengelkoch, 2008 WL 2966529 (Minn.App. August 5, 2008).

Pro se plaintiff Steele sued Google in Minnesota state court for $50 billion because Google indexed an article which Steele though defamed him. Google moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim and the lower court granted the motion. Steele sought review with the Court of Appeals of Minnesota. On appeal, the court affirmed.

The court held that 47 U.S.C. §230, by its plain language, creates a federal immunity to any cause of action that would make Google – as the provider of an interactive computer service – liable for information originating with a third party user of the service.

In the court’s language, §230(c)(1) “precludes courts from entertaining claims that would place a computer service provider in a publisher’s role.” So a lawsuit seeking to place responsibility on Google to exercise traditional roles of the publisher – e.g., deciding to publish, withdraw, postpone or alter content – was not legally sufficient to survive.

Other coverage:
Techdirt
Professor Goldman

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.