December 22, 2008
Lawsuit Over Google Ads for Mobile Services Dismissed Per 230--Goddard v. Google
By Eric Goldman
Goddard sued Google because Google displayed third party AdWords ads for allegedly fraudulent mobile subscription services. On its face, this lawsuit appeared preempted by 47 USC 230 (consistent with other opinions granting 230 for third party ads, such as the recent Cisneros case), although the plaintiff included some allegations to try to get around 230. No such luck for them. This ruling kicks the lawsuit out on 230(c)(1) grounds with leave to amend (more on that in a moment).
I'm a big fan of Judge Fogel's opinions. He's a meticulous and thoughtful judge, and his opinions are always carefully constructed. In particular, this opinion is a terrific read for anyone who would like to see a cutting-edge 230 opinion. It discusses many of the major recent 230 cases (Roommates.com, Mazur, Doe v. MySpace, Craigslist, National Numismatic) and contextualizes them nicely. It's like a 230 year-in-review opinion. If you want a one-stop resource to see what's happened in 47 USC 230 jurisprudence in 2008, read this opinion.
Among other interesting aspects, this is the first opinion by a Ninth Circuit-bound district court judge that has a robust analysis of how Roommates.com applies to the case. (Roommates.com has been cited in a few other opinions, but usually in a very cursory fashion). Judge Fogel deftly wrestles with the multiple contradictory provisions of Roommates.com, noting that it is principally is a defendant-favorable ruling with only a thin layer of plaintiff-side opportunity. For example, Fogel reads the Roommates.com opinion very narrowly when he says "The [Roommates.com] court emphasized repeatedly that the website lost immunity only by forcing its users to provide the allegedly discriminatory information as a condition of access." The opinion did say that, but I'm not sure about the "only," and it said lots of other contradictory things as well.
The Unfair Competition Claim
The plaintiff argued that Google engaged in 17200 unfair competition by receiving funds from fraudulent ads. Though this may be a novel way of framing Google's involvement, it doesn't adequately mask the underlying argument that the defendant should lose 230 coverage because it received an economic benefit from third party tortious conduct--an argument that has been rejected many, many times before and doesn't fare any better here. The court reframes the argument as a premises liability argument and rejects it per Gentry and Doe v. MySpace.
Along the way, the court addresses the plaintiff's allegation in the complaint that Google helped draft the impermissible ad copy. The plaintiff didn't press this point after the complaint, and the court says (referencing its reading of Roommates.com) that "there is no suggestion in the current record that Google “encouraged” the [advertisers] to create the allegedly fraudulent content, or that the creation of such content was anything less than voluntary."
The court also addressed the plaintiff's argument that the claim was anchored in the federal anti-money laundering criminal statute and therefore should drop out of 230 per the exclusion for federal criminal law (230(e)(1)). The court correctly rejects this but doesn't cite precedent on this point, missing Doe v. Bates.
Breach of Contract/Negligence
The plaintiff's other main attack vector is that Google should be liable because it failed to enforce a provision in Google's AdWords contract with advertisers restricting fraudulent conduct. I've complained repeatedly about arguments trying to treat a vendor's contractual negative behavioral restriction as an affirmative representation by the vendor that such behavior won't occur on the website (my latest rant on this point). Fortunately, Judge Fogel has little difficulty rejecting this argument, correctly pointing to the Green v. AOL precedent involving the distribution of third party viruses in an AOL chatroom (the Noah v. AOL precedent would have been an appropriate additional citation).
To try to get around this, the plaintiff cites to the Mazur case, which said that eBay can be liable for its affirmative marketing representations even if they are rendered untrue by third party conduct. I've repeatedly expressed my concern that the Mazur case is a more scary ruling to defendants than Roommates.com, but this opinion slightly calms my fears. Judge Fogel correctly notes that Google never made affirmative marketing representations on this point and the negative behavioral restrictions in the AdWords contract weren't an affirmative marketing representation.
Google also argued that this line of claims are barred by 230(c)(2), the immunization for filtering decisions. Citing to National Numismatic v. eBay, Judge Fogel rejects the argument based on the statutory list of immunized harmful content, saying "the relevant portions of Google's Content Policy require that [advertisers] provide pricing and cancellation information regarding their services. These requirements relate to business norms of fair play and transparency and are beyond the scope of § 230(c)(2)." I'm not sure the 230(c)(2) argument was Google's strongest, but I would have loved to see Judge Fogel unpack this discussion and the implicit assumptions a little more.
Aiding and Abetting
Finally, the court rejects the attempted 230 pleadaround that Google aided and abetted the advertisers, saying "there are no allegations here that Google “developed” the offending ads in any respect." (Cite to Roommates.com).
Leave to Amend
Given that this case was filed after the Roommates.com en banc opinion, and therefore the plaintiff had the chance to structure the complaint based on a reading of the latest Ninth Circuit standard, it would have made sense to dismiss this complaint without leave to amend. Instead, Judge Fogel gives the plaintiff another chance and articulates his reading of allegations that should survive 230 preemption:
there may be instances in which an internet content provider will be considered “ ‘responsible’ at least ‘in part’ for [posted third-party content] because every [posting] is a collaborative effort” between the internet provider and the third-party content provider. Fair Housing Council, 521 F.3d at 1167. If Plaintiff could establish Google's involvement in “creating or developing” the AdWords, either “in whole or in part,” she might avoid the statutory immunity created by § 230. In light of that possibility, Plaintiff will be given an opportunity to amend her complaint in order to allege such involvement.
Reading between the lines, the writing is on the wall for this lawsuit. The plaintiff can't win, and it would be a mistake for the plaintiff to refile. The judge even says as much in a footnote to this quote, saying "at present it appears unlikely that Plaintiff can" make the requisite allegations. Nonetheless, I'd be shocked if the plaintiff didn't refile. If they do, I hope Judge Fogel vigilantly polices the boundaries of Rule 11 for any allegations the plaintiffs make but can't back up--just like he did in the KinderStart v. Google case.
A Final Point
By my count, this is the third post-Roommates.com case where Roommates.com has been cited in favor of the defendant in kicking the case out of court. (The other two are Best Western v. Furber and GW Equity). In contrast, I am not aware of any case yet citing Roommates.com in favor of a plaintiff. It's obviously early, but at this point the limited evidence suggests that Roommates.com was not a watershed change to 230 jurisprudence. On that basis, Roommates.com may not be as bad a substantive ruling as we had initially feared.
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