Google Not Liable for False Ads–Goddard v. Google

By Eric Goldman

Goddard v. Google, Inc., 5:08-cv-02738-JF (N.D. Cal. July 30, 2009)

I previously blogged on this case in December 2008. The case involves AdWords advertisements for allegedly fraudulent mobile subscription services. In an underappreciated opinion, Judge Fogel wrote the smartest 47 USC 230 opinion of 2008 dismissing the case with leave to amend. In that ruling, he said that plaintiffs could state a valid claim if “Plaintiff could establish Google’s involvement in ‘creating or developing’ the AdWords, either ‘in whole or in part.'”

It was pretty clear then that further efforts would be a waste of time. I wrote “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.” But hope springs eternal among many plaintiff’s lawyers, so naturally they tried anyway. Not surprisingly, their second attempt was futile, and Judge Fogel shuts the door by dismissing without leave to amend this time. Among other things, he is sensitive to the costs of fruitless litigation undercutting 230’s policy objectives. He writes “this Court’s conclusion that Plaintiff almost certainly will be unable to state a claim compels the additional conclusion that Google must be extricated from this lawsuit now lest the CDA’s ‘robust’ protections be eroded by further litigation.” I hope other judges will embrace early ends to 230 cases for the same reason.

The Attack

To plead around 230, the plaintiffs allege that Google’s keyword suggestion tool encourages advertisers to buy “free ringtone” as a keyword when advertisers are buying “ringtone.” The plaintiffs then argue that Google should know that “free ringtone” is frequently used by shady players, and therefore suggesting the term to other advertisers kicks Google out of 230. This weak argument makes numerous unsupported inferences, and Judge Fogel easily rejects it. He says:

a plaintiff may not establish developer liability merely by alleging that the operator of a website should have known that the availability of certain tools might facilitate the posting of improper content. Substantially greater involvement is required, such as the situation in which the website “elicits the allegedly illegal content and makes aggressive use of it in conducting its business.” [cite to]

I’m not exactly sure what it means to make aggressive use of content, but I’m glad to see the Google’s keyword suggestion tool isn’t that.

The Barnes Attack

The plaintiffs also attack 230 using the promissory estoppel discussion from Barnes v. Yahoo. The basic argument is a familiar one in 230 jurisprudence. The plaintiffs allege that Google’s AdWords contract had negative covenants restricting the advertisers’ behavior, and this language in the Google-advertiser contract acted as a promise to consumers that the restricted advertiser behavior would not occur on Google’s network. I have repeatedly criticized the illogic of these arguments, and fortunately it doesn’t fly here. Judge Fogel guts it when he points out that “there is no allegation that Google ever promised Plaintiff or anyone else, in any form or manner, that it would enforce its Content Policy.”

I’m sure we’ll see many plaintiffs make this same bogus argument in future cases, and I hope other judges reach the same conclusion. At the same time, I think websites should prune their ever-expanding lists of negative behavioral covenants in their contracts to curb plaintiffs’ misdirected arguments and to avoid unintentionally criminalizing users (see the Lori Drew conviction).

Dismissal on 12(b)(6) Motion

A major gripe about the initial Ninth Circuit Barnes opinion was its loosely worded and poorly researched conclusion that 47 USC 230 was an affirmative defense that could not support a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. The plaintiffs argue that Judge Fogel shouldn’t dismiss the case now for that reason, even though the Ninth Circuit withdrew that portion of the opinion. Judge Fogel cites to several cases allowing a 47 USC 230 defense on a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss before doing the same himself.