eBay Denied 230 Defense for Its Marketing Representations–Mazur v. eBay

By Eric Goldman

Mazur v. eBay Inc., 2008 WL 618988 (N.D. Cal. March 4, 2008)

I declared Monday “47 USC 230 Day” here at the Technology & Marketing Law Blog, but with this new case, I’m declaring it 47 USC 230 Week. This case explores one of the frontiers of 47 USC 230 jurisprudence–when can 230 preempt a claim that a website made false marketing representations? This issue has been lurking in numerous recent 47 USC 230, but it arises squarely here. Unfortunately, the legal analysis isn’t clean or easy.

eBay offers its users the ability to engage in “live bidding” (i.e., bidding via the Internet on auctions taking place in physical space) through third party vendors. eBay’s marketing materials described these vendors as “safe” and “carefully-screened, reputable international auction houses” and that the bidding was against “floor bidders” (i.e., people bidding on the physical floor of the auction). The plaintiff claims that instead shill bidders at the auctions caused her to overpay. eBay defends against the claims based on 230 because any falsity introduced into its statements was attributable to the actions of third party vendors.

Judge Patel found that 230 helped eBay in a number of respects:

* “to the extent plaintiff seeks to hold eBay liable for information provided by [a third party vendor], eBay is immune from liability”.

* “plaintiff’s assertion that eBay knew of the seller’s illegal conduct and failed to prevent it is nevertheless under the ambit of section 230”

* “eBay’s assertion that the auction houses were screened is not actionable” because the screening is an editorial function [note: I’m not sure screening vendors for quality is really an editorial function in the traditional sense. Perhaps this particular issue would have been more appropriately handled under 230(c)(2)?]

At the same time, the court says that three other statements at issue–that live bidding is “safe,” is conducted against “floor bidders” and involves “international” auction houses–are not preempted by 230. In doing so, the court distinguishes several cases, including:

* the Gentry case (involving eBay’s liability for fake sports memorabilia) because eBay’s communications there were distilled from user-supplied feedback

* the SexSearch case (where the site claimed its users were 18+ but a minor lied about her age) because the marketing claims “were merely a regurgitation of its users’ representations” whereas here, apparently eBay made no regurgitations

* the infoUSA case (where infoUSA said that it verified data in its database) and the Barnes case (where Yahoo failed to take down bogus user profiles) because each involved the accuracy of data, while this case involves the promise of safety. [Note: I think the court makes a rather fine distinction here. Clearly the word “safe” means something special to this judge: “eBay’s statement regarding safety affects and creates an expectation regarding the procedures and manner in which the auction is conducted and consequently goes beyond traditional editorial discretion.”]

The court doesn’t discuss the Accusearch case, which seemed like the most analogous case to me. That case involved a vendor’s resale of illicit phone records that were procured by third parties via pretexting, and the court held that 230 didn’t protect the vendor even though the underlying asset being sold was information from a third party. The Accusearch opinion doesn’t directly hold the vendor responsible for marketing these illicit records as legitimate, but that would be a fair way to read the opinion. The court also could have cited (but didn’t) the CafePress opinion, which also involved a 230 denial for a website selling tortious third party goods.

So, what does all of this mean? The bad news is that this case seems to open up a major bypass to 230 for plaintiffs. They don’t need to sue a website for a third party-caused tort by asserting the prima facie tort against the website; instead, following the “logic” in this opinion, all a plaintiff needs to do is find that the website made a marketing representation somewhere that says or implies the tort wouldn’t occur, and the claim for bad marketing should be outside 230’s coverage. [Note: I understand that’s not exactly what Patel said because she did reject the claims for eBay’s marketing representation about screening. But the claim over “safety” fits this pattern neatly.]

On the other hand, I’m not sure this case reached the wrong result. Assume for a moment that per 230, eBay isn’t liable for the marketing claim that its vendors are “safe.” This seemingly would mean that eBay could freely make such claims, true or not, reap the economic benefits from consumer choices driven by those claims, and yet completely avoid liability. I don’t think 230 should provide a free pass for commercial misrepresentation. eBay picks the words to describe its business; it should own those words.

In any case, as this case illustrates, I think it’s fair to say that 230’s preemption of marketing representations remains a major open area in 230 jurisprudence. If you’re looking for a term paper project, this looks like a good one to me.

Even if 230 doesn’t apply, eBay has other defenses against liability for the alleged marketing misrepresentations. The court rejects eBay’s defense based on the release in the eBay user agreement, but it does dismiss the fraud claim (with leave to amend) because it lacked the requisite specificity.

The opinion also discusses one of the auction vendor’s user agreements, which specified a highly expedited extrajudicial adjudication as the sole dispute resolution option. The court tosses the contractual adjudication procedure as unconscionable due to the contract’s formatting and substantive unfairness. Along the way, the court casts some doubt on extrajudicial adjudication clauses that have “no witness” provisions. If you’re interested in forming enforceable online user agreements, you should check out this opinion.