Under § 230(c)(1) of the Communications Decency Act (47 U.S.C. § 230(c)), “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.” Federal courts in Virginia have held that § 230 creates federal immunity to any cause of action that would make service providers (as opposed to content providers) liable for information originating with a third-party user of the service. For example, Section 230 has been found to bar claims for defamation, tortious interference with business expectancy, and trademark infringement. In Directory Assistants, Inc. v. Supermedia, LLC, the court clarified that Section 230 immunity applies not only to providers but also to users.
Directory Assistants is an advertising consulting agency that helps businesses advertise in yellow page directories. SuperMedia also sells advertising solutions. Directory Assistants had been the subject of allegedly false and defamatory postings on consumer review websites such as RipOffReport.com, ScamInformer.com, and YellowPages.com. According to Directory Assistants, SuperMedia sent an email to a prospective customer that included links to the allegedly defamatory postings. Directory Assistants sued SuperMedia for defamation, and SuperMedia moved to dismiss, arguing protection under Section 230.
Reviewing relevant case law and the statutory language, the court found that Section 230 protects users equally as it does providers, and it held that although a person who creates unlawful content may be held liable, a user of an interactive computer service who finds and forwards via e-mail content that others have posted online in an interactive computer service is immune from liability.
The court then examined whether the websites providing the various reports in the instant case qualified as interactive computer services and whether SuperMedia qualified as a user under the statute. The complaint alleged that RipOffReport and the other websites allowed many people access to a portal on the internet to post information about products and services. Courts have ruled that these types of websites are not internet content providers because they do not create the content that is posted.
Unlike some other federal decisions, the court applied a dictionary definition to the term “user,” interpreting it to mean “someone who uses.” The court found that SuperMedia, by going to websites like RipOffReport, reading postings and compiling links to these posts in an email, was “using” an interactive computer service. Therefore, the court held that SuperMedia was entitled to Section 230 immunity from defamation liability.
In its conclusion, the court noted that if Directory Assistants had some evidence that SuperMedia had a hand in creating the allegedly defamatory posts, it may have had a case, but current case law does not allow downstream users of content created by others to be held liable for defamatory statements.