Section 230 Safe Harbor

Happy 2018 to our readers! It has become a Socially Aware tradition to start the New Year with some predictions from our editors and contributors. With smart contracts on the horizon, the Internet of Things and cryptocurrencies in the spotlight, and a number of closely watched lawsuits moving toward resolution, 2018 promises to be an exciting year in the world of emerging technology and Internet law.

Here are some of our predictions regarding tech-related legal developments over the next twelve months. As always, the views expressed are not to be attributed to Morrison & Foerster or its clients.

From John Delaney, Co-Founder and Co-Editor, Socially Aware, and Partner at Morrison & Foerster:
Regarding Web Scraping

Web scraping is an increasingly common activity among businesses (by one estimate, web-scraping bots account for as much as 46% of Internet traffic), and is helping to fuel the “Big Data” revolution. Despite the growing popularity of web scraping, courts have been generally unsympathetic to web scrapers. Last August, however, web scrapers finally received a huge victory, as the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California enjoined LinkedIn from blocking hiQ Labs’ scraping of publicly available user profiles from the LinkedIn website in the hiQ Labs, Inc. v. LinkedIn Corp. litigation. The case is now on appeal to the Ninth Circuit; although my sense is that the Ninth Circuit will reject the broad scope and rationale of the lower court’s ruling, if the Ninth Circuit nevertheless ultimately sides with hiQ Labs, the web scraper, the decision could be a game changer, bringing online scraping out of the shadows and perhaps spurring more aggressive uses of scraping tools and scraped data. On the other hand, if the Ninth Circuit reverses, we may see companies reexamining and perhaps curtailing their scraping initiatives. Either way, 2018 promises to bring greater clarity to this murky area of the law.

Regarding the Growing Challenges for Social Media Platforms

2017 was a tough year for social media platforms. After years of positive press, immense consumer goodwill and a generally “hands off” attitude from regulators, last year saw a growing backlash against social media due to a number of reasons: the continued rise of trolling creating an ever-more toxic online environment; criticism of social media’s role in the dissemination of fake news; the growing concern over social media “filter bubbles” and “echo chambers”; and worries about the potential societal impact of social media’s algorithm-driven effectiveness in attracting and keeping a grip on our attention. Expect to see in 2018 further efforts by social media companies to get out ahead of most if not all of these issues, in the hopes of winning over critics and discouraging greater governmental regulation.

Regarding the DMCA Safe Harbor for Hosting of User-Generated Content

The backlash against social media noted in my prior item may also be reflected to some extent in several 2017 court decisions regarding the DMCA safe harbor shielding website operators and other online service providers from copyright damages in connection with user-generated content (and perhaps in the CDA Section 230 case law discussed by Aaron Rubin below). After nearly two decades of court decisions generally taking an ever more expansive approach to this particular DMCA safe harbor, the pendulum begun to swing in the other direction in 2016, and this trend picked up steam in 2017, culminating in the Ninth Circuit’s Mavrix decision, which found an social media platform provider’s use of volunteer curators to review user posts to deprive the provider of DMCA safe harbor protection. Expect to see the pendulum continue to swing in favor of copyright owners in DMCA safe harbor decisions over the coming year.

Regarding Smart Contracts

Expect to see broader, mainstream adoption of “smart contracts,” especially in the B2B context—and perhaps litigation over smart contracts in 2019 . . . .

From Aaron Rubin, Co-Editor, Socially Aware, and Partner at Morrison & Foerster:
Regarding the CDA Section 230 Safe Harbor

We noted previously that 2016 was a particularly rough year for Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and the immunity that the statute provides website operators against liability arising from third-party or user-generated content. Now that 2017 is in the rear view mirror, Section 230 is still standing but its future remains imperiled. We have seen evidence of Section 230’s resiliency in recent cases where courts rejected plaintiffs’ creative attempts to find chinks in the immunity’s armor by arguing, for example, that websites lose immunity when they use data analytics to direct users to content, or when they fail to warn users of potential dangers, or when they share ad revenue with content developers. Nonetheless, it is clear that the knives are still out for Section 230, including in Congress, where a number of bills are under consideration that would significantly limit the safe harbor in the name of combatting sex trafficking. I predict that 2018 will only see these efforts to rein in Section 230 increase.
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In an effort to deter hate groups from tweeting sanitized versions of their messages, Twitter has began considering account holders’ off platform behavior when the platform evaluates whether potentially harmful tweets should be removed and account holders should be suspended or permanently banned.

In connection with Congressional efforts to deter online sex trafficking by narrowing

The government in Indonesia has warned the world’s biggest social media providers that they risk being banned in that country if they don’t block pornography and other content deemed obscene.

A member of the House of Lords has proposed an amendment to the U.K.’s data protection bill that would subject technology companies to “minimum standards

A federal appeals court in Miami held that a judge needn’t necessarily recuse herself from a case being argued by a lawyer with whom the judge is merely Facebook “friends.”

Bills in both houses of Congress propose amending Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to clarify that it doesn’t insulate website operators from liability

03_April_SociallyAware_thumbnailThe latest issue of our Socially Aware newsletter is now available here.

In this edition, we explore the threat to U.S. jobs posed by rapid advances in emerging technologies; we examine a Federal Trade Commission report on how companies engaging in cross-device tracking can stay on the right side of the law; we take

SociallyAware_Vol8Issue1_Thumb2The latest issue of our Socially Aware newsletter is now available here.

In this edition,we examine a spate of court decisions that appear to rein in the historically broad scope of the Communications Decency Act’s Section 230 safe harbor for website operators; we outline ten steps companies can take to be better prepared for

Speedometer_166009527We have been monitoring a trend of cases narrowing the immunity provided to website operators under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA).  A recent decision by a state court in Georgia, however, demonstrates that Section 230 continues to be applied expansively in at least some cases.

The case, Maynard v. McGee, arose from an automobile collision in Clayton County, Georgia.  Christal McGee, the defendant, had allegedly been using Snapchat’s “speed filter” feature, which tracks a car’s speed in real-time and superimposes the speed on a mobile phone’s camera view. According to the plaintiffs, one of whom had been injured in the collision, McGee was using the speed filter when the accident occurred, with the intention of posting a video on Snapchat showing how fast she was driving.  The plaintiffs sued McGee and Snapchat for negligence, and Snapchat moved to dismiss based on the immunity provided by Section 230.

The plaintiffs alleged that Snapchat was negligent because it knew its users would use the speed filter “in a manner that might distract them from obeying traffic or safety laws” and that “users might put themselves or others in harm’s way in order to capture a Snap.” To demonstrate that Snapchat had knowledge, the plaintiffs pointed to a previous automobile collision that also involved the use of Snapchat’s speed filter.  The plaintiffs claimed that “[d]espite Snapchat’s actual knowledge of the danger from using its product’s speed filter while driving at excessive speeds, Snapchat did not remove or restrict access to the speed filter.”
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A rear view of a businessman in a suit, with an upheld umbrella, standing in a large field during a thunderstorm. Lightning is seen descending from a gray and cloudy sky.

2016 has been a tough year for a lot of reasons, most of which are outside the scope of this blog (though if you’d like to hear our thoughts about Bowie, Prince or Leonard Cohen, feel free to drop us a line). But one possible victim of this annus horribilis is well within the ambit of Socially Aware: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA).

Often hailed as the law that gave us the modern Internet, CDA Section 230 provides immunity against liability for website operators for certain claims arising from third-party or user-generated content. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has called Section 230 “the most important law protecting Internet speech,” and companies including Google, Yelp and Facebook have benefited from the protections offered by the law, which was enacted 20 years ago.

But it’s not all sunshine and roses for Internet publishers and Section 230, particularly over the past 18 months. Plaintiffs are constantly looking for chinks in Section 230’s armor and, in an unusually large number of recent cases, courts have held that Section 230 did not apply, raising the question of whether the historical trend towards broadening the scope of Section 230 immunity may now be reversing. This article provides an overview of recent cases that seem to narrow the scope of Section 230.
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PrintAs we noted in our recent post on the Ninth Circuit case Kimzey v. Yelp! Inc., in the right circumstances, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) still provides robust protection against liability for website operators despite the unusually large number of decisions this year seemingly narrowing the scope of the statute. Defendants notched another Section 230 win recently in Manchanda v. Google, a case in the Southern District of New York. The case began in May 2016 when Rahul Manchanda, an attorney, filed a complaint alleging that Google, Yahoo and Microsoft harmed his reputation by indexing certain websites that described him in negative terms.

Manchanda asserted various claims against the three defendants, including defamation, libel, slander, tortious interference with contract, breach of fiduciary duty, breach of the duty of loyalty, unfair trade practices, false advertising, unlawful trespass, civil RICO, unjust enrichment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress and trademark infringement. Manchanda sought injunctive relief requiring the defendants to “de-index or remove the offending websites from their search engines” in addition to damages.

The court made quick work of dismissing most of Manchanda’s claims on Section 230 grounds, emphasizing that the CDA “immunizes search engines from civil liability for reputational damage resulting from third-party content that they aggregate and republish.” The court went on to note that “[t]his immunity attaches regardless of the specific claim asserted against the search engine, so long as the claim arises from the publication or distribution of content produced by a third party and the alleged injury involves damage to a plaintiff’s reputation based on that content.”
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2016 has been a challenging year for Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) and the website operators who depend on it for protection against liability stemming from user-generated content. An unusually large number of cases this year have resulted in decisions holding that the defendant website operators were not entitled to immunity under Section 230. For example, as we’ve discussed recently, in Hassel v. Bird, the California Court of Appeal held that Section 230 did not prevent the court from ordering Yelp to remove from its website allegedly defamatory reviews posted by users, even though Yelp was not a party in the underlying defamation suit.

We are working on an article surveying some of the recent cases holding that Section 230 did not apply. But in the meantime, it is important to remember that Section 230 remains a powerful shield against liability and that defendants continue to wield it successfully in many cases. The Ninth Circuit’s recent decision in Kimzey v. Yelp is one such case.

Kimzey arose from two negative Yelp reviews that user “Sarah K” posted in September 2011 about Douglas Kimzey’s locksmith business in the Seattle area. Sarah K’s reviews were extremely negative and rated Kimzey one out of five stars in Yelp’s multiple-choice star rating system. In all caps, she warned Yelpers that “THIS WAS BY FAR THE WORST EXPERIENCE I HAVE EVER ENCOUNTERED WITH A LOCKSMITH. DO NOT GO THROUGH THIS COMPANY . . . CALL THIS BUSINESS AT YOUR OWN RISK.”
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