Two Recent Decisions Show the Strengths and Limitations of the CDA

by Lee Gesmer on October 10, 2014

Two Recent Decisions Show the Strengths and Limitations of the CDA

Many observers have commented that if they had to identify one law that has had the greatest impact in encouraging the growth of the Internet, they would chose the Communications Decency Act  (“CDA”) (47 USC § 230). 

Under the CDA (also often referred to as “Section 230”) web sites are not liable for user submitted content. As a practical matter, in most cases this means Internet providers are not liable for defamation posted by users (many of whom are anonymous or judgment-proof).* 

*[note] The DMCA, not the CDA, provides Internet providers with safe harbors for claims of copyright infringement based on user submitted content.

Two recent cases illustrate the reach and limitations of this law. In one case the CDA was held to protect the website owner from liability for defamation. In the other, the law did not protect the website from potential liability based on negligence.

Jones v. Dirty World

The CDA provides immunity from information provided by users. However, if a site itself is the “content provider” — for example, the author of defamation —  it is legally responsible for the publication. In other words, the CDA does not give Internet providers or web site owners license to engage in defamation, only immunity when their users do so.

Under the CDA the term “content provider” is defined as a person “that is responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation or development of information ….” Therefore, in many cases, the issue has been who is responsible for the “creation or development” of the defamatory content – the poster or the site owner?

This was the issue before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Jones v. Dirty World Entertainment Recordings LLC.

Nik Richie owns Dirty World, an online tabloid (www.thedirty.com). Users, not Mr. Richie or his company, create most of the content, which often is unflattering to its subjects. However, Dirty World encourages offensive contributions by its “dirty army,” and it selects the items that are published from user contributions. In addition, Mr. Richie often adds a sentence or two of commentary or encouragement to the user contributions.

Sarah Jones, a teacher and cheerleader for the Cincinnati Bengals was repeatedly and crudely defamed on the site. However, the defamation was contained in the posts written and contributed by users, not Richie or his company. In fact, it’s easy to see that Ritchie had been carefully coached as to what he can and cannot say on the site (as distinct from what his contributors say).

Dirty World refused to remove the defamatory posts, and Sarah Jones (who apparently was unaware of the Streisland Effect) sued Richie. Two federal court trials ensued (a mistrial and a $338,000 verdict for Jones).

Before and during the trial proceedings Richie asserted immunity under the CDA. The trial judge, however, refused to apply the law in Dirty World’s favor. 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.” Of course, there was a reasonably strong argument that Dirty World and Ritchie did exactly this – encouraged defamatory postings and added comments that ratified or adopted the posts — and hence the jury verdict in Jones’ favor.

After the second trial Richie appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which reversed, holding that Dirty World and Richie were immune from liability under the CDA.

The first question before the Sixth Circuit was whether Dirty World “developed” the material that defamed Sarah Jones. In a leading CDA case decided by the Ninth Circuit in 2008 — Fair Housing Council of San Francisco Valley v. Roommates, LLC —  the Ninth Circuit established the following “material contribution” test: a website helps to develop unlawful content, and therefore is not entitled to immunity under the CDA, if it “contributes materially to the alleged illegality of the conduct.”

The Sixth Circuit adopted this test, and held a “material contribution” meant ” being responsible for what makes the displayed content allegedly unlawful.” Dirty World was not responsible for the unlawful content concerning Ms. Jones.

Second, consistent with many other cases applying the CDA, the court held that soliciting defamatory submissions did not cause Dirty World to lose immunity.

Lastly, the Sixth Circuit rejected the district court’s holding that by “ratifying or adopting” third-party content a web site loses CDA immunity: A website operator cannot be responsible for what makes another party’s statement actionable by commenting on that statement post hoc. To be sure, a website operator’s previous comments on prior postings could encourage subsequent invidious postings, but that loose understanding of responsibility collapses into the encouragement measure of ‘development,’ which we reject.”

The $338,000 verdict was set aside, and the district court instructed to enter judgment in favor of Richie and Dirty World.

The Sixth Circuit’s decision was no surprise. Many people in the legal community believed that the trial court judge was in error in failing to dismiss this case before trial. Nevertheless, it is a reminder of how far the CDA can go in protecting website owners from user postings, and adds to the road map lawyers can use to make sure their clients stay on the “safe” side of the line between legal and illegal conduct under this law.

Jane Doe 14 v. Internet Brands (dba Modelmayhem.com)

Things went the other way for Modelmayhem, in a case decided by the Ninth Circuit on September 17, 2014.

Like Dirty World, this case involved a sympathetic plaintiff. The plaintiff, “Jane Doe,” posted information about herself on the “Model Mayhem” site, a mayhemnetworking site for the modeling industry. Two rapists used the site to lure her to a fake audition, at which they drugged and raped her. She alleged that Internet Brands knew about the rapists, who had engaged in similar behavior before her attack, but failed to warn her and other users of the site. She filed suit, alleging negligence based on “failure to warn.”*

*[note] The two men have been convicted of these crimes and sentenced to life in prison.

In this case, like Dirty World, the district court again got it wrong and was reversed on appeal. However, in this case the district court wrongly held that the site was protected by the CDA.

The Ninth Circuit disagreed, stating –

Jane Doe … does not seek to hold Internet Brands liable as a “publisher or speaker” of content … or for Internet Brands’ failure to remove content posted on the website. [The rapists] are not alleged to have posted anything themselves. … The duty to warn … would not require Internet Brands to remove any user content or otherwise affect how it publishes such content. … In sum, Jane Doe’s negligent failure to warn claim does not seek to hold Internet Brands liable as the “publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” As a result, we conclude that the CDA does not bar this claim.

This ruling has raised the hackles on advocates of broad CDA coverage. Their “parade of horribles” resulting from this decision includes questioning how broadly the duty to warn extends, practical questions about how a web site would provide effective warnings, and concerns about various unintended (and as yet hypothetical) consequences that may result from this decision. However, based on the broad interpretation the courts have given the CDA in the last two decades, it seems unlikely that this case will have significant implications for CDA jurisprudence. Nevertheless, like Jones v. Dirty World, it is one more precedent lawyers must take into consideration in advising their clients.

Jones v. Dirty World Entertainment Recordings LLC (6th Cir. 2014)

Doe v. Internet Brands, Inc. (9th Cir. Sept. 17, 2014) 

 

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