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.

Has Section 230 immunity passed its apex?

Barnes v. Yahoo!, Inc., No. 05-36189, 9th Cir. May 7, 2009

Yesterday’s decision from the Ninth Circuit in Barnes v. Yahoo is kind of a big deal. Jeff Neuberger observes that Section 230 took a hit. Characterizing it differently, Thomas O’Toole called it a nice win for online publishers. I’m thinking that the halcyon days of robust Section 230 immunity may be on the wane.

Barnes alleged that her ex-boyfriend did some pretty rotten things using various Yahoo services. Since I think my mom reads my blog I won’t elaborate on Prince Charming’s shenanigans. But if the allegations are true, one can understand why Barnes would be mad. Simply stated, they involved nude photos and men looking to cavort showing up where Barnes worked.

Barnes contacted Yahoo and asked it to take the offending content down. Folks there said they would. Months later, when the content remained online, Barnes sued Yahoo for negligent undertaking and promissory estoppel.

The district court dismissed Barnes’ claims, holding that 47 U.S.C. 230 protected Yahoo because, according to that section, “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.”

It’s no big surprise that the appeallate court affirmed the lower court on the question of negligent undertaking. Barnes’ claim was that Yahoo was negligent in undertaking to remove the content. Since the removal of content is one of the quintessential functions of a publisher, it would contravene Section 230 to hold Yahoo liable for that.

The more intriguing part of the case comes from the court’s reversal on the question of promissory estoppel. Yahoo’s breach of an alleged promise to remove the content was of a different nature than the act of removing the content. “Promising is different because it is not synonymous with the performance of the action promised.” Liability arising from failing to live up to that promise was outside the scope of Section 230. In other words, pursuing Yahoo for breaking its promise to take down the offending content did not treat it as the publisher or speaker of that content.

This holding seems to be another chip away at Section 230 immunity. Smart intermediaries (e.g. website operators) are likely to communicate less now with individuals who feel aggrieved, because the intermediary may fear that anything it says could be construed as a breakable promise putting it at risk for liability.

Made in onto ABC World News Tonight

The Sheriff of Cook County (that means Chicago) has sued Craigslist claiming that the site is a public nuisance. [Here’s the Complaint. ABC News interviewed me this afternoon to get my comments on the case. I enjoyed talking about it for about 20 minutes on camera. As these things usually go, most of my flashes of insight comments ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor, but one complete sentence made it onto ABC World News tonight. Click here to see the segment.

Click for video
(Click for video)

Professor Goldman has this rundown of the case.

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

A look back at Doe v. MySpace

Court of Appeals upholds Section 230 immunity for MySpace. Social networking provider not subject to suit for negligence for failing to implement technological measures to weed out underage users.

Doe v. MySpace, Inc., — F.3d —-, 2008 WL 2068064 (5th Cir. May 16, 2008).

I’ve been pretty busy the past few weeks with work and speaking engagements, and I also slipped in a little vacation awhile back. So I’m doing some catching up, looking over a number of interesting decisions from the past few weeks. While I was on the beach in Florida with my family, the Fifth Circuit issued this intriguing opinion in a case that has gotten quite a bit of publicity since it was filed back in 2006. Here’s the story.

When Julie Doe was 13, she lied about her age and set up a profile on MySpace. A year later, she met — first online, then offline — a 19 year-old named Solis. That Solis allegedly assaulted Doe.

MySpace Section 230 graphic

Julie and her mother filed suit against MySpace alleging, among other things, negligence. The plaintiffs claimed that MySpace should have done more to prevent Doe and Solis from meeting.

The case bounced around Texas and New York state court, then to New York federal court, then back to Texas where it ended up in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas. Last year, the district court dismissed the case, holding that the Communications Decency Act at 47 U.S.C. 230 immunized MySpace from liability.

The Does sought review with the Fifth Circuit. On appeal, the court affirmed.

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 Does had argued that Section 230 should not bar the negligence claim, as the allegations dealt not with MySpace’s publication of information, but with the site’s failure to implement appropriate security.

Agreeing with the lower court, the appellate court rejected what it called disingenuous artful pleading by the plaintiffs. It found that the allegations were “merely another way of claiming that MySpace was liable for publishing the communications and they [spoke] to MySpace’s role as a publisher of online third-party-generated content.”

No CDA immunity for adult-oriented Web site in right of publicity case

Doe v. Friendfinder Network, Inc., — F.Supp.2d —-, No. 07-286, 2008 WL 803947 (D.N.H. March 28, 2008)

Plaintiff Doe learned that a nude image and some biographical information about herself had been used to set up a bogus profile on the adult-oriented personal-ad Web site Adult Friend Finder. She sued the operator of the site alleging a number of claims, like defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. She also alleged misappropriation of her right of publicity under state law, and false designation of origin and false advertising under the federal Lanham Act.

Adult Friend Finder moved to dismiss the claims, arguing that the Communications Decency Act (“CDA”) at 47 U.S.C. 230 immunized the site from liability for the information provided by someone other than the site operator. The court agreed with Adult Friend Finder as to the majority of the claims, holding that the claims were barred by the CDA where the plaintiff sought to impose liability on the site as the publisher or speaker of the information.

But the court held that the CDA did not immunize Adult Friend Finder from Doe’s state law claims for violation of the right of publicity, or for violation of the federal Lanham Act.

Section 230(e)(2) provides that “[n]othing in this section shall be construed to limit or expand any law pertaining to intellectual property.” You may recall that last year the Ninth Circuit [in Perfect 10, Inc. v. CC Bill, LLC, 488 F.3d 1102 (9th Cir. 2007)] held that 230(e)(2)’s restriction on immunity only applied to federal claims involving intellectual property (leaving state law claims barred).

The court in this case disagreed with the Ninth Circuit on this point, looking at the plain language of the statute and finding no meaningful distinction between state and federal causes of action involving intellectual property, especially given the presence of the word “any” when decribing “law[s] pertaining to intellectual property.”

Communications Decency Act shields web host as “distributor” of defamatory content

Plaintiff Austin, the owner of a travel-related business, accused the owner of one of his business’s competitors of posting defamatory content on the competitor’s website. Austin filed a defamation lawsuit against the company that hosted the website, claiming that it was liable for refusing to take down the alleged defamatory statements.

The web hosting company successfully moved for summary judgment, citing to 47 U.S.C. §230, a portion of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 which 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.” Austin sought review of the trial court’s decision.

Austin argued that the plain language of §230 provides a shield only for liability that would result from being a publisher of defamatory material. Because the web hosting company was a distributor of defamatory content, Austin argued, §230 should not apply, and thus the lower court erred in granting summary judgment on that basis.

The appellate court rejected Austin’s argument, relying heavily on the decision of Zeran v. America Online, Inc., 129 F.3d 327 (4th Cir., 1997). As in Zeran, the court found that Congress had spoken directly to the issue by “employing the legally significant term ‘publisher,’ which has traditionally encompassed distributors and original publishers alike.” The court held that because distributor liability is a subset of publisher liability, it is therefore specifically foreclosed by § 230.

Austin v. CrystalTech Web Hosting, 125 P.3d 389, 2005 WL 3489249 (Ariz. App. Div. 1, December 22, 2005).

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