47 USC 230 Year-in-Review for 2009

By Eric Goldman

I will do a more comprehensive year in review for Cyberlaw generally, but I thought it would be fun to take a close look at how 47 USC 230 fared in 2009. This is the first full calendar year following the Ninth Circuit’s en banc Roommates.com opinion, and many of us initially feared that the case would create a huge hole in 230’s otherwise solid immunity. As it turns out, those concerns have not come to pass. If anything, 2009 shows us just how strong the immunity remains.

I blogged on a total of 22 cases issued in 2009 that discussed the statute. (I blog on every case I see that substantively discusses 47 USC 230). I blogged on other cases in 2009 that were decided before 2009, such as the Woodhull v. Meinel case from October 2008 and DC v. Harvard-Westlake, a 2007 arbitrator’s dismissal that came to light in 2009.

Of the 22 calendar year 2009 cases, I would classify 14 of them (63%) as easy defense wins, frequently on a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss or state law equivalent. Even many of the remaining 8 cases contained good news for defendants. For example, in Shiamili, the defense inexplicably lost at the district court level but got an easy reversal on appeal. The Stayart court granted Yahoo an easy defense win, although co-defendant Various didn’t get the 230 ruling. Similarly, the Barnes case granted the defense an easy 230 win on one theory (negligent undertaking) but denied 230 for a different one (promissory estoppel). The Certain Approval Process case said 230 did not prevent the plaintiff from amending the complaint to add a cause of action, but once added, the court instantly zapped the claim on other grounds.

This leaves four unambiguous 230 defense losses in 2009. The leading 230 defense loss was the Tenth Circuit FTC v. Accusearch case, which held a retailer liable for reselling illicit phone records. The other major 230 defense loss was the NPS v. StubHub case, which held that 230 may not apply to a lawsuit over the alleged illegal ticket scalping by StubHub’s sellers. Both of these cases involve the retailing of illegal items, suggesting that 230’s boundaries may not reach that far.

The other two defense losses are less consequential. The Project Playlist held that 230 does not preempt state IP law claims, a conclusion that deserves note only because the Ninth Circuit held otherwise in the 2007 ccBill case. I believe that no other courts will follow the Ninth Circuit’s rule that 230 preempts state IP laws, making the Project Playlist ruling unsurprising.

In People v. Gourlay, a web host was denied a 230 defense to a criminal prosecution for child molestation- and child pornography-related claims. This case turns mostly on the web host’s active role creating the child pornography (as well as the host’s molestation of the child actor); with that context, this case may have little influence on other cases. Indeed, the court made clear that web hosts providing standard web hosting services could fully qualify for 230 protection against a state criminal prosecution of child pornography dissemination.

In reverse chronological order, a brief overview of the 230 cases from 2009:

Nemet Chevrolet v. ConsumerAffairs.com (4th Cir. Dec. 29, 2009). One of three federal appellate court 230(c)(1) rulings in 2009 (Barnes and Accusearch are the others). A solid defense win for a consumer review website. The plaintiff’s claims that the website contributed to the reviews’ development and fabricated reviews were tossed on a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss.

Shiamili v. Real Estate Group (N.Y. App. Div. Dec. 17, 2009). In an unpublicized January 2009 decision, the trial court denied a website’s 230 dismissal request for claims based on user-supplied comments. In December, this error was fixed on appeal despite allegations that the website “chooses and administers” the user content.

Dart v. Craigslist (N.D. Ill. Oct. 20, 2009). Craigslist got a big win in its ongoing battles with various government agencies over prostitution ads on Craigslist when the court held it wasn’t liable for those ads.

Riggs v. MySpace (C.D. Cal. Sept. 17, 2009). A goofy case. The court holds that MySpace’s deletion of Riggs’ account was protected by 230(c)(1) on the apparent theory that Riggs (the plaintiff) was the third party supplier of the deleted content. This case would make more sense as a 230(c)(2) case.

Finkel v. Facebook (N.Y. Sup. Ct. Sept. 15, 2009). Facebook wasn’t liable for the contents of a user’s private group even though Facebook placed a copyright notice on the page.

Intellect Art v. Milewski (N.Y. Sup. Ct. Sept. 15, 2009). Ripoff Report wins again.

Stayart v. Yahoo (E.D. Wis. Aug. 28, 2009). An convoluted, and possibly confused, ruling that Yahoo wasn’t liable for search results snippets. However, Various was denied 230 because it may have originated the content in question.

Cornelius v. DeLuca (E.D. Mo. Aug. 18, 2009). An online retailer wasn’t liable for user-supplied comments despite a “conspiracy” allegation.

Goddard v. Google (N.D. Cal. July 30, 2009). This is a follow-on ruling to an important December 2008 ruling in this case, which dismissed the plaintiff’s complaints but gave the plaintiffs another chance. The December 2008 ruling is one of the most interesting and important decisions interpreting Roommates.com. In the July ruling, the judge again found that 230 insulates Google from liability due to allegedly fraudulent ads run through its network and granted a final dismissal.

Doe II v. MySpace (Cal. App. Ct. June 30, 2009). MySpace isn’t liable for users’ sexual assaults on other users.

FTC v. Accusearch (10th Cir. June 29, 2009). The second of three federal appellate court rulings on 230(c)(1). The defendant was an online retailer of illegal phone records. The retailer claimed that the phone records came from third party suppliers and therefore 230 immunized the retailer from liability associated with the records. The court echoed the Ninth Circuit’s Roommates.com decision, effectively extending that case to the Tenth Circuit, and said that the retailer was responsible for selling the illicit phone records despite 230.

Zango v. Kaspersky (9th Cir. June 25, 2009). This is the only 2009 ruling addressing 47 USC 230(c)(2), the overshadowed and frequently overlooked sibling of 230(c)(1). Despite the rarity of 230(c)(2) cases, this case could be fairly influential. The Ninth Circuit held that 230(c)(2) protected an anti-spyware software vendor’s decision to classify software as a threat. If you missed it, you might want to take a look at my presentation slides on 230(c)(2), which distill my deep look at 230(c)(2) this summer.

Gibson v. Craigslist (S.D.N.Y. June 15, 2009). Craigslist isn’t liable for physical injury caused by a gun purchased via a Craigslist ad.

Doe IX v. MySpace (E.D. Tex. May 22, 2009). MySpace isn’t liable for users’ sexual assaults on other users.

Barnes v. Yahoo (9th Cir. May 7, 2009; amended opinion June 22, 2009). The third of three federal appellate court opinions on 230(c)(1). The Ninth Circuit held that 230 preempted a claim against a service provider for negligently delaying the removal of user content (essentially, Zeran redux), but 230 did not preempt a promissory estoppel claim based on promises the service provider made to the person requesting takedown. The initial Ninth Circuit opinion had two other unfortunate digressions: (1) it said that 230 was an affirmative defense that did not support a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, and (2) the opinion had ambiguous language implying that 230 preempted only state claims, not federal claims. The amended opinion helpfully eliminated both digressions.

Atlantic Records v. Project Playlist (S.D.N.Y. March 25, 2009). 230 does not preempt a state IP claim—in this case, a violation of state copyright law for pre-1972 sound recordings.

Joyner v. Lazzareschi (Cal. App. Ct. March 18, 2009). A message board operator wasn’t liable for user posts.

Raggi v. Las Vegas Police (D. Nev. March 10, 2009). A union wasn’t liable for messages that union members posted on the union-operated message board.

Certain Approval Programs v. Xcentric Ventures (D. Ariz. March 9, 2009). 230 did not bar amending a complaint to add a new cause of action when the plaintiff also adequately alleged that the Ripoff Report contributed to the creation and development of the content at issue.

People v. Gourlay (Mich. App. Ct. March 3, 2009). This case involves the prosecution of a pornographic web host who also molested the child actor. The web host asserted a 230 defense in trying to overturn the conviction for the charges related to pornography dissemination. Although 230 can preempt state criminal prosecutions, and web hosts are protected by 230 for their ordinary web hosting activities, this web host actively participated in the site’s development and therefore lost 230’s protection.

NPS v. StubHub (Mass. Super. Ct. Jan. 26, 2009). In a long-running battle between the New England Patriots and season ticketholders who want to resell their tickets via StubHub, StubHub was denied summary judgment on 230 grounds. The court cites Roommates.com in saying that StubHub may have contributed to illegal ticket scalping sufficient to potentially disqualify it for 230 protection.

GW Equity v. Xcentric Ventures (N.D. Tex. Jan. 9, 2009). Ripoff Report is protected by 230 even though it offers pull-down menus and manipulates user-submitted reports.