The Law and Business of Social Media
December 05, 2016 - Online Reviews, Section 230 Safe Harbor, Litigation

In a Rough Year for CDA Section 230, Manchanda v. Google Provides Comfort to Website Operators

In a Rough Year for CDA Section 230, Manchanda v. Google Provides Comfort to Website Operators

As 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.”

Because the majority of Manchanda’s claims were based on the search engines’ publication of third-party websites with no allegation that the defendants created the allegedly defamatory content, and Manchanda’s damages flowed from reputational harms allegedly caused by the third-party websites, Section 230 provided immunity regardless of how Manchanda styled his particular claims.

Interestingly, according to the court, the fact that Manchanda sought the removal or de-indexing of links to the third-party websites further demonstrated that “Manchanda’s grievance is with Defendants’ actions as search engines and aggregators”—i.e., as “interactive computer services” protected by Section 230—and not as content providers. And the court noted that “the CDA’s broad protection for internet publishers also protects Defendants from any obligation to remove or de-index any links.” Accordingly, the court held, “Manchanda’s defamation and related claims must be dismissed.”

This left only Manchanda’s claims for trademark infringement, unfair trade practices and false advertising, all of which the court also dismissed for reasons that go beyond the focus of this post.

One final point, however, is worth noting: Manchanda had also filed a motion for sanctions against the defendants in the amount of $100 million based on the defendants’ alleged failure to comply with a restraining order that had been issued by a New York State court in a different proceeding to which the three search engines were not parties. The court disposed of Manchanda’s order easily, holding that “Defendants here were not party to that litigation and . . . are therefore not bound by that order.”

While that result may seem obvious, compare the result in another case we wrote about recently, Hassel v. Bird, in which 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.

In any event, Manchanda breaks little new ground with respect to Section 230 and in years past would have seemed routine, but given the challenges that Section 230 has faced in 2016, Manchanda may provide website operators some comfort that the statute still has teeth.

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For other Socially Aware blog posts regarding the CDA Section 230 safe harbor, please see the following: Yelp Case Shows CDA §230 Still Has Teeth; Controversial California Court Decision Significantly Narrows a Crucial Liability Safe Harbor for Website Operators; and Google AdWords Decision Highlights Contours of the CDA Section 230 Safe Harbor.