Articles Posted in Section 230

You’ve heard by now that companies like Facebook and Twitter are not liable for defamation when their platforms are used to circulate false and defamatory content. The law most often cited as the source of this protection is known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 provides protection to companies that supply the platform, forum, or other technology that others can use to communicate information, provided the companies are not involved in creating the content that gets posted on their sites. Section 230 generally allows such companies to moderate and delete content without losing immunity, but not create content themselves. Although Section 230 protects internet companies from liability as a publisher of speech, it does not protect them in situations where liability is sought on some other theory, such as intellectual property infringement or liability as the seller of a defective product.

In the case of Tyrone Henderson v. The Source for Public Data, the Eastern District of Virginia was faced with the question of whether Section 230 could apply to claims raised under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. The issue had apparently never come up before, but the court readily determined that Section 230 did apply because the defendants were being sued for publishing content created by others and were not involved in creating that content themselves. Section 230 is not limited to defamation claims and can be invoked in any case where its requirements are satisfied.

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Once upon a time, each separate copy of a defamatory statement was considered a separate publication, giving rise to a separate cause of action for defamation. Back then, if a defamatory article was published in a newspaper and the newspaper printed a million copies, the plaintiff could argue successfully that he had been defamed a million times. That is no longer the law, at least not in Virginia. Take Yelp reviews. If a new cause of action was created each time a consumer clicked a link leading to a defamatory review, the one-year statute of limitations would potentially never expire. Such a rule would likely allow plaintiffs to endlessly harass defendants by filing a new lawsuit with each new click. For reasons like these, Virginia follows the “single publication rule,” which treats an online post as a single publication despite the fact that it may be read over and over again by different people all over the world. The number of views may be relevant to assessing the plaintiff’s damages, but does not re-start the running of the statute of limitations or create new causes of action.

A Virginia law firm learned this lesson recently in Westlake Legal Group v. Yelp and Christopher Schumacher. Mr. Schumacher hired Westlake attorney Thomas K. Plofchan, Jr., back in 2009 and, according to his Yelp review, was not pleased with the representation he received. His review, posted on July 7, 2009, accused Westlake of “blatant incompetence and lying” and of having “a history of messing up cases.” Westlake sued for defamation, not only against Mr. Schumacher, but against Yelp itself. The firm did not file the lawsuit, however, until May 11, 2012, well after the one-year limitations period had expired.
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Concerns that freedom of online speech would be chilled if Internet Service Providers were liable for allegedly defamatory remarks made by posters to their sites led Congress to pass the Communications Decency Act (the “CDA”). The CDA shields companies serving as intermediaries for other parties’ potentially injurious speech from tort liability arising from users’ comments. Section 230 of the CDA provides 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.” Although the CDA is interpreted broadly in light of Congress’ intent in passing the statute, an interactive computer service provider remains liable for its own speech.

To benefit from CDA immunity, (1) the defendant must be a provider or user of an interactive computer service; (2) the plaintiff’s claim must be based on information provided by another information content provider; and (3) the claim must treat the defendant as the publisher or speaker of the allegedly harmful speech. In Small Justice LLC v. Xcentric Ventures LLC, a federal court in Massachusetts found that Ripoff Report should not lose its CDA immunity even if it was found to have copyright ownership of the allegedly defamatory content, and even if, as the plaintiff alleged, it “intentionally caused…two defamatory per se publications to be prominently and frequently featured on Google…and other search engines.”
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Section 230(c)(1) of the Communications Decency Act is intended to immunize providers of interactive computer services against liability arising from content created by third parties. Under Section 230, most Internet services will not be liable for false or defamatory material published on their sites so long as the information was created by another party. Although this statute provides website operators with a strong defense against defamation claims and other torts, a motion to dismiss is not a sure thing, at least not here in Virginia.

Section 230 applies to providers and users of an “interactive computer service,” but does not protect information content providers. If a website provides both functions, it will not be immune from liability. In Nasser v. WhitePages, Inc., the Western District of Virginia held that discovery would be required before the court could determine whether WhitePages was entitled to Section 230 immunity. Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman, who writes frequently about the protections of the Communications Decency Act, has sharply criticized the ruling as “overly cautious.”

Michael Nasser filed an emotional distress and nuisance action against WhitePages, Inc., alleging that WhitePages incorrectly listed his phone number as that of “Comcast Phone of Virginia,” resulting in thousands of unwanted phone calls intended for Comcast. Nasser made numerous requests to remove the listings, but the listings remained on WhitePages’ website for approximately sixteen months. Nasser alleged that he had to seek http.jpgmedical treatment for various issues because of the unwanted calls, and he sought $500,000 in compensatory and punitive damages for intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress and nuisance.

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,, and 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 230.jpgan 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.

Worried about liability for statements made by others in an online forum hosted by your website? Provided you don’t take an active role in editing the content posted by others, you shouldn’t have to worry about defamation liability. The Communications Decency Act (“CDA”), found at 47 U.S.C. § 230, provides that “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 further provides that “No cause of action may be brought and no liability may be imposed under any State or local law that is inconsistent with this section.”

In the still-pending case of Cornelius v. DeLuca, filed in the Eastern District of Missouri, the plaintiffs, sellers of a dietary supplement called “Syntrax,” sued various competitors for libel and tortious interference with business expectancies, and also sued the owners of–a website containing a forum for Internet discussion by the public–for supposedly assisting the other defendants post false and defamatory statements to the forum. In essence, the plaintiffs tried to get around the CDA by claiming the host of the forum wasn’t a mere “provider” but an active participant in a conspiracy to post libelous, defamatory statements concerning the plaintiff’s product. The court rejected the argument and dismissed the conspiracy count.

Under the CDA, while content providers cannot be held liable for the statements of others, they can be held liable for their own statements (which is why providers need to be careful not to edit others’ statements, thereby arguably adopting the statement as DigiGlobe.jpgtheir own). It is undoubtedly for this reason that the plaintiffs, realizing full well that the owners of did not make the statements at issue themselves, alleged that the owners conspired with the actual authors to allow the statements to be posted.

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