Archive for April 2008
My partner John Leonard, an avid fan of quirky YouTube videos, couldn’t resist penning a summary of this recent decision involving the website.
In an unremarkable but informative decision from the Federal Court sitting in the Western District of Washington at Tacoma, Judge Franklin Burgess, on April 15 of this year, declined to subject YouTube to the Court’s jurisdiction in that State merely because YouTube appears on the Internet in Washington.
In the case, Victoria S. Bowen vs. YouTube, Inc., the plaintiff, Ms. Bowen, a YouTube registered user, alleged that certain YouTube users posted harassing comments on YouTube directed at her. She also alleged that her “intellectual property rights have been repeatedly violated,” and that YouTube had engaged in negligent affliction of emotional distress upon her. She also, apparently, alleged that YouTube violated her civil rights under Section 1983 of Federal law.
The Court summarily disposed of her emotional distress claim stating that it was barred by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The Court also dismissed her civil rights claim, saying that it could not proceed because YouTube was not acting under color of State law. As to her intellectual property rights claim, the Court similarly dismissed it because of its “infirmities,” without going into detail.
Most of the opinion, however, was devoted to a discussion of whether, under the facts as alleged in the Complaint, YouTube is subject to jurisdiction in the State of Washington.
The Court noted that in order for Washington State jurisdiction to attach, the defendant must have: (1) committed an act or transaction with the State; (2) the claim must have arisen out defendant’s activities in the State; and (3) the exercise of jurisdiction must be reasonable. Citing several Ninth Circuit cases as precedent, the Court ruled that there was no personal jurisdiction over YouTube in Washington because YouTube’s “presence” in the State was merely passive, and that the plaintiff’s use of YouTube in the State was not enough to render YouTube subject to Washington State jurisdiction.
Interestingly, after YouTube had filed its motion to dismiss, the plaintiff, probably recognizing that her attempt to keep the case in Washington was doomed, moved to transfer the case to California. The Court, however, ruled that dismissal, not transfer, of the case was the proper way to go. Whether the plaintiff can get another shot at YouTube by re-filing the case in California was not discussed, but the success of any such subsequent case seems unlikely, absent any new facts or legal theories alleged, given the apparent substantive infirmities in plaintiff’s case.
Earlier today the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in Fair Housing Council of San Fernando Valley, et al v. Roommate.com, LLC, issued an en banc ruling that rejects the majority of the website’s assertions of Section 230 immunity. For purposes of this (lengthy) post, I will assume you are familiar with the facts of the case and previous rulings. If not, check out my summary of the three judge panel’s May 2007 decision reversing the District Court’s application of Section 230 immunity.
The en banc panel here consisted of eleven Circuit Judges: Alex Kozinski, Stephen Reinhardt, Pamela Ann Rymer, Barry G. Silverman, M. Margaret McKeown, William A. Fletcher, Raymond C. Fisher, Richard A. Paez, Carlos T. Bea, Milan D. Smith, Jr. and N. Randy Smith.
The Court’s opinion was authored by Chief Judge Kozinski, and a partial Concurrence/partial Dissent was issued by Judge McKeown, who was joined by Judges Rymer and Bea.
The bottom line you ask? Jump to page 28 of the slip opinion, wherein the Court advises that “[t]he message to website operators is clear: If you don’t encourage illegal content, or design your website to require users to input illegal content, you will be immune.” Now for the loooong version, which excludes any consideration of the partial concurrence/dissent (maybe later).
We are of course dealing with a statute here, and the Court appropriately begins by asking what Congress had in mind when it enacted the law.
In passing section 230 . . . Congress sought to immunize the removal of user generated content, not the creation of content: “[S]ection  provides ‘Good Samaritan’ protections from civil liability for providers . . . of an interactive computer service for actions to restrict . . . access to objectionable online material.” (quoting from a 1996 Conference Report)
I’m not so sure the “Good Samaritan” phrase is properly applied to Section 230(c)(1), but I think the point being made here is valid: In the online context, acting as an editor is generally protected. Acting as an author is not.
The Court proceeds to consider the challenged portions of the Roommates.com website. As to the questions asked of prospective subscribers during registration (disclosure of sex, family status, and sexual orientation), including the choice of answers provided by Roommates.com and offered in pull-down menus, the Court opines that
Roommate created the questions and choice of answers, and designed its website registration process around them. Therefore, Roommate is undoubtedly the “information content provider” as to the questions and can claim no immunity for posting them on its website, or for forcing subscribers to answer them as a condition of using its services. . . . The CDA does not grant immunity for inducing third parties to express illegal preferences. Roommate’s own acts—posting the questionnaire and requiring answers to it—are entirely its doing and thus section 230 of the CDA does not apply to them. Roommate is entitled to no immunity.”
Although it is purportedly just focused on the question of whether immunity applies, the Court further notes that “asking questions certainly can violate the Fair Housing Act and analogous laws in the physical world.” More on this apparent divergence from the topic at hand (immunity) later.
The Court considers Roommates.com’s role as a developer when considering its subscribers’ profiles:
Although it is the subscriber that has answered the questions that are ultimately displayed in his or her profile, same “does not preclude Roommate from also being an information content provider by helping “develop” at least “in part” the information in the profiles. . . . By any reasonable use of the English language, Roommate is “responsible” at least “in part” for each subscriber’s profile page, because every such page is a collaborative effort between Roommate and the subscriber.
In other words, according to the Court, Roommates.com has again crossed the Section 230 line:
By requiring subscribers to provide the information as a condition of accessing its service, and by providing a limited set of pre-populated answers, Roommate becomes much more than a passive transmitter of information provided by others; it becomes the developer, at least in part, of that information. And section 230 provides immunity only if the interactive computer service does not “creat[e] or develop” the information “in whole or in part.”
The Court also declines to extend immunity to Roommate.com’s operation of its search system and email notification system. Observing that “Roommate designed its search system so it would steer users based on the preferences and personal characteristics that Roommate itself forces subscribers to disclose[,]” the Court addresses head-on the key question of when does a website create or develop information:
We believe that both the immunity for passive conduits and the exception for co-developers must be given their proper scope and, to that end, we 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.” [I think this language explains the Court's interest in the underlying legality of some of Roommate.com's alleged actions here].
The preceding paragraph is a significant, uh, development in Section 230 jurisprudence, and merits close attention. What it seems to be saying is that for purposes of determining whether Section 230 immunity applies, we don’t just look at whether the site created the subject content. We must also examine whether the website “contributed materially to the alleged illegality of the conduct.”
Based upon this new standard, the Court rules that Roommate.com “is sufficiently involved with the design and operation of the search and email systems—which are engineered to limit access to housing on the basis of the protected characteristics elicited by the registration process—so as to forfeit any immunity to which it was otherwise entitled under section 230.” Rejected again.
However, the Court does rule that Roommate.com is immune to claims based upon third party submissions under the “Additional Comments” section of the site.
The case concludes with what could be construed as both a warning to the plaintiffs’ bar and an encouraging word (?) to website operators:
[T]here will always be close cases where a clever lawyer could argue that something the website operator did encouraged the illegality. Such close cases, we believe, must be resolved in favor of immunity, lest we cut the heart out of section 230 by forcing websites to face death by ten thousand duck-bites, fighting off claims that they promoted or encouraged—or at least tacitly assented to—the illegality of third parties . . .. [I]n cases of enhancement by implication or development by inference—such as with respect to the “Additional Comments” here—section 230 must be interpreted to protect websites not merely from ultimate liability, but from having to fight costly and protracted legal battles.
The Court remands the case to the District Court for a consideration of the claims not immunized by Section 230.
I’m still digesting this thing (and may alter some of this post upon further reflection), but will say that I definitely anticipate a certiorari petition in the not too distant future. In the meantime, I recommend you give the opinion a read. Check out the favorable language directed at search engines and sites that, like Roommate.com and the one in Carafano, classify user data. Also look for several generic examples offered by the Court of situations where immunity would and would not apply, and “clarifications” of two prior Ninth Circuit rulings (Carafano and Batzel).
I’m looking forward to getting through Judge McKeown’s accompanying opinion and hearing what others have to say about the case.
Guest blogger John Leonard is at it again, this time summarizing a recent federal court decision construing Section 230 in the “adult website” context.
An interesting decision came down last week from the United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire, Doe vs. Friendfinder Network, et. al. In that case, Judge Joseph LaPlante, in a well-reasoned opinion, replete with common sense, upheld the concept of CDA tort immunity for owners and operators of websites, as to information provided by other information content providers, while extending the intellectual property immunity exemption to state intellectual property laws.
The plaintiff Doe, unwilling, for obvious reasons, to use her real name in the lawsuit, filed a multi-count complaint based upon the appearance on the defendant’s website of her name, purported information, and a purported nude photo of her, for purposes of showing her availability for dating, and, presumably, sexual relationships and activities. In her complaint charging, among other things, invasion of privacy, defamation, infliction of emotional distress, and violations of the New Hampshire Consumer Protection Act and the Federal Lanham Act, the plaintiff denied that she had ever provided any information to the website, that some of the information included in her profile on the website was false, and that the nude photo accompanying the information was not of her.
Interestingly, among the plaintiff’s charges were allegations that the defendants caused portions of the allegedly bogus profile to appear on search engines and as advertisements, or “teasers”, on other unaffiliated sites. Plaintiff’s bogus profile also allegedly appeared on similar websites that are operated by the defendants. She also alleged that, in response to her request that the profile be removed from the website, the defendants then posted the statement that, “this member has removed her profile,” thereby implicitly, if not actually, stating that the allegedly bogus profile was of the plaintiff.
The judge began his analysis by affirming the principle, adopted by most Federal Circuits, that, stemming from Zeran v. America Online, Inc., 129 F.3d 327 (4th Cir. 1997), sections [47 U.S.C.] 230(c)(1), (f)(3), and (e)(3) of the CDA bar state law claims (except those relating to intellectual property) against interactive computer services for publishing content provided by another information content provider. This immunity, according to the judge, applied even to the complaint that the website operator posted the allegedly bogus profile of the plaintiff on other websites. As to this charge, citing the First Circuit decision of Universal Comm’n. Sys. v. Lycos, 478 F.3d 412 (2007), the judge held that the mere re-posting or repetition of information received from another did not render the defendants “information content providers” on their own behalf so as to subject them to state and common law liability.
As to the charge that the defendants, in their statement regarding the removal of the profile, affirmatively acknowledged that the profile was in fact that of the plaintiff, the judge opined that because the association of the plaintiff with the profile originally came from another content provider, the defendants (in repeating that association) were not responsible for creating the association, and therefore “cannot be considered an ‘information content provider’ under the statute because no profile has any content until a user [here, someone other than the defendants] actively creates it.”
Judge La Plante did, however, rule in favor of the plaintiffs on two not insignificant counts of her complaint, one complaining of a violation of her right to publicity, another charging a violation of the Federal Lanham Act (the statute generally concerned with trademark and trade name issues). As to her invasion of privacy claim, the judge noted that insofar as one of the plaintiff’s four invasion of privacy sub-claims involved the violation of plaintiff’s right to publicity, that sub-claim was one concerning intellectual property, and was therefore exempt from the immunity provision of the CDA. In so holding, the judge explicitly rejected the decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Perfect 10 v. CC Bill, LLC, 488 F.3d 1102 (2007) which held that the intellectual property exemption to CDA immunity applied only to Federal and not to state, intellectual property claims. As Judge LaPlante explained, that interpretation was contrary to the express language of the statute, and in effect constituted a judicial re-writing of the CDA.
Finally, the judge held that the plaintiff’s Lanham Act claims, asserting false advertising and false designation, could proceed because they also were subject to the intellectual property exemption. The judge emphasized that the defendants’ use of the plaintiff’s allegedly false and bogus profile as unauthorized “teasers” for marketing (advertisement) purposes “falls directly” with the language of the Lanham Act preventing such unauthorized use. The judge rejected outright the defendants’ argument that such “false endorsement” claims can only be made by celebrities and did not apply to the common folk, as being totally unsupported by any authority.
In the introduction to this short review, I praised Judge LaPlante’s decision as being well-reasoned and consistent with common sense. I must here, however, add one exception, perhaps just a minor quibble over language but nonetheless, I believe, important. This relates to that portion of his ruling where he found that the defendants’ statement that “this member has removed her profile.” Given that this statement was made after the plaintiff had contacted the defendants and told them that the profile was in fact false, and that she was not a member, were the defendants out-of-bounds when they then affirmatively created the statement that she was a member and that this was in fact her profile? I wonder if this conduct by the defendants did not go beyond the mere repeating of information provided by another, and in effect constituted an affirmative statement authored by the defendants themselves. While the defendants may not have been under an obligation to launch an investigation into who, the original provider of the profile or the plaintiff, was telling the truth, surely they did not have to phrase the removal language in such a way as to continue to identify the plaintiff as “a member” of the service and the subject of the profile. Neutral words such as “this profile removed upon request” would certainly have been sufficient to satisfy the defendants’ need for an explanation without specifically referring to the plaintiff’s person. In this author’s humble opinion, in this specific and limited situation, the court may have extended the CDA tort immunity a little too far.
Yesterday Magistrate Judge James Muirhead ruled in favor of ZeroBrokerFees.com in the website’s suit challenging the applicability of the New Hampshire Real Estate Practice Act – specifically the licensure requirement – to the operation of ZeroBrokerFees.com. The court ruled that pursuant to a statutory exemption for newspapers, ZeroBrokerFees.com was not obligated to obtain a brokerage license in New Hampshire before advertising real estate online.
For a refresher, see my post from last May.