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Google AdWords Decision Highlights Contours of the CDA Section 230 Safe Harbor

Posted in IP, Litigation, Section 230 Safe Harbor, Trademark

In a string of cases against Google, approximately 20 separate plaintiffs have claimed that, through advertisements on its AdWords service, Google engaged in trademark infringement. These claims have been based on Google allowing its advertisers to use their competitors’ trademarks in Google-generated online advertisements. In a recent decision emerging from these cases, CYBERsitter v. Google, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California found that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) provides protection for Google against some of the plaintiff’s state law claims.

As we have discussed previously (see here and here), Section 230 states that “[n]o provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” The Section 230 safe harbor immunizes websites from liability for content created by users, as long as the website did not “materially contribute” to the development or creation of the content. An important limitation on this safe harbor, however, is that it shall not “be construed to limit or expand any law pertaining to intellectual property.”

In the CYBERsitter case, plaintiff CYBERsitter, which sells an Internet content-filtering program, sued Google for selling and displaying advertisements incorporating the CYBERsitter trademark to ContentWatch, one of CYBERsitter’s competitors. CYBERsitter’s complaint alleged that Google had violated numerous federal and California laws by, first, selling the right to use CYBERsitter’s trademark to ContentWatch and, second, permitting and encouraging ContentWatch to use the CYBERsitter mark in Google’s AdWords advertising. Specifically, CYBERsitter’s complaint included the following claims: Trademark infringement, contributory trademark infringement, false advertising, unfair competition and unjust enrichment.

Google filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that Section 230 of the CDA shielded it from liability for CYBERsitter’s state law claims. The court agreed with Google for the state law claims of trademark infringement, contributory trademark infringement, unfair competition and unjust enrichment, but only to the extent that these claims sought to hold Google liable for the infringing content of the advertisements. The court, however, did not discuss the apparent inapplicability of the Section 230 safe harbor to trademark claims. As noted above, Section 230 does not apply to intellectual property claims and, despite the fact that trademarks are a form of intellectual property, the court applied Section 230 without further note. This is because the Ninth Circuit has held that the term “intellectual property” in Section 230 of the CDA refers to federal intellectual property law and therefore state intellectual property law claims are not excluded from the safe harbor. The Ninth Circuit, however, appears to be an outlier with this interpretation; decisions from other circuit courts suggest disagreement with the Ninth Circuit’s approach, and district courts outside the Ninth Circuit have not followed the Ninth Circuit’s lead.

Google was not let off the hook entirely with regard to the plaintiff’s state trademark law claims. In dismissing the trademark infringement and contributory trademark infringement claims, the court distinguished between Google’s liability for the content of the advertisements and its liability for its potentially tortious conduct unrelated to the content of the advertisements. The court refused to dismiss these claims to the extent they sought to hold Google liable for selling to third parties the right to use CYBERsitter’s trademark, and for encouraging and facilitating third parties to use CYBERsitter’s trademark, without CYBERsitter’s authorization. Because such action by Google has nothing to do with the online content of the advertisements, the court held that Section 230 is inapplicable.

The court also found that CYBERsitter’s false advertising claim was not barred by Section 230 because Google may have “materially contributed” to the content of the advertisements and, therefore, under Section 230 would have been an “information content provider” and not immune from liability. Prof. Eric Goldman, who blogs frequently on CDA-related matters, has pointed out an apparent inconsistency in the CYBERsitter court’s reasoning, noting that Google did not materially contribute to the content of the advertisements for the purposes of the trademark infringement, contributory infringement, unfair competition and unjust enrichment claims, but that Google might have done so for the purposes of the false advertising claim.

CYBERsitter highlights at least two key points for website operators, bloggers, and other providers of interactive computer services. First, at least in the Ninth Circuit, but not necessarily in other circuits, the Section 230 safe harbor provides protection from state intellectual property law claims with regard to user-generated content. Second, to be protected under the Section 230 safe harbor, the service provider must not have created the content and it must not have materially contributed to such content’s creation.