As we have noted previously, the California Court of Appeal’s Hassell v. Bird decision in 2016 upholding an injunction requiring Yelp to remove certain user reviews was discouraging to social media companies and other online intermediaries, as well as to fans of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and proponents of Internet free speech generally. The recent California Supreme Court decision reversing the Court of Appeal was, therefore, met with considerable relief by many in the Internet community.
But while the California Supreme Court’s decision is undoubtedly a significant development, it would be premature for Section 230 fans to break out the champagne; the “most important law protecting Internet speech” remains under attack from many directions, and this recent decision is far from definitive. But before getting into the details of the Hassell v. Bird opinion, let’s step back and consider the context in which the case arose.
Before Section 230: A Wild, Wild Web
A fundamental issue for social media platforms and other online intermediaries, including review sites like Yelp, is whether a company may be held liable when its customers engage in bad behavior, such as posting defamatory content or content that infringes the IP rights of third parties. Imagine if Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Yelp were potentially liable for defamation every time one of their users said something nasty (and untrue) about another user on their platforms. It would be hard to imagine the Internet as we currently know it existing if that were the case.