Facebook Not Liable for Account Termination–Young v. Facebook

By Eric Goldman

Young v. Facebook, 2010 WL 4269304 (N.D. Cal. Oct. 25, 2010). The initial complaint.

Kashmir Hill covered the initial complaint filing in this case, and you should start with her post. The short story is that Facebook kicked Karen Young off its site, she sued Facebook and the court dismissed her suit. The court provides a few interesting conclusions along the way:

* Facebook isn’t a state actor despite “contracts between Facebook and the General Services Administration allowing Facebook pages for federal agencies.”

* Facebook isn’t liable for failing to adhere to Young’s desired “safety” levels because its contract disclaims such a duty.

* “Young also claims that Facebook has ‘failed in its responsibility to condemn all acts or statements that inspire, imply, incite, or directly threaten violence against anyone.’ Id. Young provides no basis from which to infer such a broad duty. Such an obligation would be inconsistent with the policy choices undertaken by Congress in the Communications Decency Act, which sharply limits the responsibility of interactive computer service providers for the content provided by third parties.”

* Young’s fraud allegations lacked the requisite specificity.

I think the most interesting discussion relates to Young’s breach of contract claim. The court dismisses it as well, but it leaves open the possibility that capricious terminations by Facebook might violate an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing:

As with all contracts, Facebook has an implied duty not to frustrate the other party’s right to receive the benefits of the agreement actually made. The agreement in this case is to provide users access to Facebook’s services subject to certain terms and conditions. While users do not pay for the services directly, Facebook benefits from user activity through the sale of advertising. Facebook expressly reserves the right to terminate the accounts of users who “violate the letter or the spirit of this Statement, or otherwise create risk or possible legal exposure” for Facebook, Compl. Ex. A-2, but it does not expressly reserve the right to terminate an account for any reason, and indicates in its Statement of Principles that users “should not have their presence on the Facebook Service removed for reasons other than those described in Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.” Compl. Ex. B-1. It is at least conceivable that arbitrary or bad faith termination of user accounts, or even termination of user accounts with no explanation at all, could implicate the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. [emphasis added]

However, Young’s current complaint does not allege that the termination of her account was undertaken in bad faith or violated Facebook’s contractual obligations. Instead, she alleges that she was deprived of human interaction the process surrounding the termination of her account. The termination provision of the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities provides that when a user account is terminated, Facebook “will notify you by email or at the next time you attempt to access your account.” Id. Given the express language, Facebook could not have an implied obligation to provide a different termination process.”

Personally, I think 47 USC 230(c)(2) typically trumps a website’s implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing regarding account termination, even if the user alleges that the termination was capricious. I will be speaking on that topic in the context of virtual worlds at UC Irvine in April 2011; and I will be writing up a paper in support of this argument in the Spring. Stay tuned.

For more on this ruling, see Evan Brown’s coverage.

Some related posts:

* Life May Be “Rad,” But This Trademark Lawsuit Isn’t–Williams v. CafePress.com

* Terminated eBay Vendor Gets Day in Court Against eBay–Crawford v. Consumer Depot

* Web Host Can Terminate Customer for Abusive Call to Customer Support–Mehmet v. Add2Net

* Online Game Network Isn’t Company Town–Estavillo v. Sony

* Anti-Spyware Company Protected by 47 USC 230(c)(2)–Zango v. Kaspersky

* AOIR Regulating Virtual Worlds Panel, and My Notes on Investment Expectations in Virtual Worlds

* KinderStart v. Google Dismissed–With Sanctions Against KinderStart’s Counsel

* Search Engines Defeat “Must-Carry” Lawsuit–Langdon v. Google

* Termination of Accounts in Virtual Worlds

* My virtual worlds article: Speech Showdowns at the Virtual Corral