Internet Access Provider & Blocklist Publishers Denied 230(c)(2) Immunity for Anti-Spam Efforts

By Eric Goldman

Smith v. Trusted Universal Standards in Electronic Transactions, Inc., 2010 WL 1799456 (D.N.J. May 4, 2010)

It’s usually a drag to read opinions in pro se lawsuits. Most of the time, the litigant gets flattened mercilessly. Occasionally, however, the judge bends over backwards to give the litigant the benefit of the doubt. Either way, the opinions are messy and untrustworthy.

This case fits that description. The judge says he can’t figure out the facts from the complaint. but here’s his best guess. It appears that Smith is a Comcast Internet subscriber. Comcast blocked his outgoing mail twice because he was allegedly sending spam. When pressed why it thought Smith’s emails were spam, Comcast pointed the finger at IronPort (owned by Cisco), who in turn pointed the finger at Spamhaus. Smith then filed a “Consumer Watchdog” complaint against Comcast with TRUSTe (misnamed as the lead defendant).

Independently, Microsoft put Smith’s email server on its Frontbridge blocklist. Smith separately filed a TRUSTe complaint against Microsoft for that. Smith ultimately decided to sue TRUSTe, Comcast, Cisco and Microsoft for 8 different legal violations in one big litigation fiesta.

Smith’s claims go nowhere. The court dismisses all of them with leave to amend the complaint, so the story turns out largely happily for the defendants. Unfortunately, the plaintiff does get one more chance, and he even attached a massive 404 page (!) draft amended complaint. (Note: this is 404 pages, not a 404 error, although it certainly is an error). The court reminds the plaintiff that the rules require a short and plain statement of the claims.

Along the way, the court reaches a decidedly defendant-unfriendly conclusion by rejecting Comcast’s, Cisco’s and Microsoft’s 230(c)(2) defense, the statutory immunity for online filtering decisions–and the often overlooked cousin of 230(c)(1) which I have blogged about many times. Worse, the court reaches its conclusion in the face of several clearly applicable precedent cases. In my opinion, this is an example of how Smith’s pro se status causes the court to be overly cautious…to the point of reaching the wrong result.

The court starts off right by concluding that spam could qualify as “otherwise objectionable” content under 230(c)(2) (cite to e360insight v. Comcast). Doing a light ejusdem generis analysis, the court says “nothing about the context before or after that phrase limits it to just patently offensive items.”

However, Comcast is denied 230(c)(2) on a motion to dismiss because Smith alleged that Comcast acted in bad faith. In support of this, Smith alleged that Comcast told him that they didn’t mind his emails, but he just needed to upgrade to a more expensive subscription. The court says if this is true, “Comcast was not concerned that people were receiving large quantities of emails, or concerned about the content of the emails, but rather was concerned that Plaintiff had not purchased a sufficient level of service. This is not a good faith belief that the emails were objectionable, but rather a belief that they violated a service agreement.”

This is a garbled statement at best. What I think the court was trying to say is that Comcast had a pink contract that allowed spam if the user paid enough money, and Smith hadn’t gotten a pink contract. If so, then I can see the court’s point that Comcast is being duplicitous arguing that spam is objectionable content because Comcast’s assessments could be bought.

I was uncomfortable with the court’s almost off-hand reference that “One would expect that if an interactive computer service had acted in good faith, it could and would come forward with the legitimate basis for its actions when questioned (though the Court is not suggesting they must do so).” First, as the court notes, this is a motion to dismiss, so Comcast can’t proffer new evidence. Second, this is a burden-shift. As regular readers know, I believe 230 is an immunity against suit, not an affirmative defense, so the plaintiff has the burden to show why the service provider did not possess the requisite subjective good faith when making its filtering decision. It’s not Comcast’s responsibility to prove its own subjective good faith beliefs. (How does one prove those in any case?)

Cisco and Microsoft both published blocklist-type information. They try to fit into 230(c)(2)’s statutory definition of “access software providers,” which requires them to show that they “provide or enable computer access by multiple users to a computer server.” This issue was litigated in the Zango v. Kaspersky case, where Kaspersky distributed anti-spyware software that phoned home for new definitions. The Ninth Circuit said that the phone home feature satisfied the statutory requirement. In contrast, the court appears to say that pure blocklist publishers (i.e. those who do not distribute accompanying software with a phone home capacity) do not; this reading effectively kicks blocklist publishers out of the statute.

As the court acknowledges, this conclusion seemingly conflicts with the 2004 OptInRealBig decision, where the court held that IronPort as a blocklist publisher qualified for the statute because it was a user of an interactive computer service. The court doesn’t explain why IronPort doesn’t still qualify as an ICS user except to say that IronPort didn’t make the requisite showing. The court also does not note that the OptInRealBig case was a 230(c)(1) decision (not a 230(c)(2)) because IronPort republished third party reports, and that should have applied here as well. The court also does not address the extensive 230(c)(1) precedent effectively treating online content publishers (which would include blocklist publishers) as “users” of ICSs, ranging from Barrett v. Rosenthal to the implicit conclusion in Novins v. Cannon.

More specific to 230(c)(2), the court doesn’t explore either Pallorium v. Jared or MAPS v. Black Ice (an old 2000 case), both of which arguably contradict this particular conclusion in the 230(c)(2) context. Thus, because the court did not engage the applicable precedent, was overly solicitous to a pro se litigant, and knew that its discussion was dicta because it was ruling for the defendants anyways, the court chunks the analysis.

For more on 230(c)(2), see my 230(c)(2) talk notes from last summer.

One other noteworthy aspect of the ruling. Smith alleges that Comcast breached its privacy policy, but the court dismisses the contract claim because he doesn’t show any loss from the alleged breach. This is yet another case holding that merely breaching a privacy policy isn’t an actionable contract breach without more. See, e.g., the cited JetBlue case.

UPDATE: John Levine provides some perspectives about what might have happened.