The Law and Business of Social Media
May 23, 2024 - Defamation, IP, Right of Publicity, Section 230 Safe Harbor, Social Media Policy

Part 4 – Section 230: 27 Years Old and Still in the Spotlight

Section 230: 27 Years Old and Still in the Spotlight

In our fourth installment of our six-part series examining Section 230—the segment of the 1996 Communications Decency Act (CDA) that immunizes online service providers from liability stemming from content created by third parties—we’ll examine some of the more contemporary judicial, legislative, and executive responses to the Act. Read our first, second, and third installments of this series to bring you up to speed on the conversation so far.

Section 230 in the age of social media and the rise of user-generated content (UGC)

In tandem with the rise of social media and the proliferation of user-generated content, we have recently witnessed numerous Section 230 cases throughout various jurisdictions.

In Federal Agency of News LLC v. Facebook, Inc. (N.D. Cal. Jan. 13, 2020), a Northern California district court rejected the notion that political speech is not covered by Section 230 immunity. The case concerned Facebook’s removal of user content belonging to the Federal Agency of News (FAN), which was allegedly tied to Russian government agencies seeking to undermine U.S. institutions. Specifically, the court stated that “[i]mmunity under the Communications Decency Act does not contain a political speech exception . . . . No distinction is made between political speech and non-political speech.” The court ultimately dismissed FAN’s suit with prejudice.

In another case involving Facebook—and a case of first impression for the Third Circuit—a district court ruled that Section 230 protects against state-law claims regarding rights of publicity. In Hepp v. Facebook, Inc. (E.D. Pa. June 5, 2020), Karen Hepp, a television news anchor for FOX, brought right of publicity claims against several social media platforms for unauthorized use of her image. The photo in question was taken by a security camera in an NYC convenience store and subsequently used in online ads for erectile dysfunction and dating websites. The court held that Hepp’s statutory and common law right of publicity claims, both based on state law, were covered by Section 230—and in doing so, the court rejected Hepp’s argument that those claims were within the exception described by Section 230(e)(2). That important exception states that intellectual property laws are unaffected by Section 230, but the court aligned itself with Ninth Circuit precedent in holding that only federal intellectual property claims qualify for the exception. In the court’s view, extending the exception to state law intellectual property claims “would fatally undermine the broad grant of immunity provided by the CDA.” As we reported previously, the Third Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals recently dismissed the case, citing that each of these companies were protected and had immunity under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act 0f 1996 (CDA). Read the full opinion of Hepp v. Facebook, No. 20-2725 (3d Cir. 2021).

Account terminations in the age of Section 230: Distributor vs. publisher role continues to raise issues

In Domen v. Vimeo, Inc., (2d Cir. March 11, 2021), Domen, a Christian pastor, published 89 videos on Vimeo promoting “conversion therapy” that were later flagged by Vimeo as violating its policy against promotion of “Sexual Orientation Change Efforts (SOCE).” After a warning period, Vimeo terminated Domen’s account. Domen sued Vimeo for several claims, including on anti-discrimination grounds, arguing that Vimeo had “restricted and censored [his] videos because [they] were based on a viewpoint regarding sexual orientation and religion with which Vimeo disagrees.” The court dismissed Domen’s suit, on Section 230 and other grounds, finding that:

  • Vimeo was acting as a publisher and therefore qualified for Section 230 immunity: “Plaintiffs are seeking to hold Vimeo liable for removing Plaintiffs’ own content . . . . Vimeo plainly was acting as a ‘publisher’ when it deleted (or, in other words, withdrew) Plaintiffs’ content on the Vimeo website”;
  • Domen had no argument that Vimeo was applying its policy in a discriminatory manner: “the purpose of Section 230 was to insulate interactive computer services from liability for removing some content, but not other content . . . . There simply are no substantive allegations to support the notion that Vimeo somehow was targeting Domen because he is a ‘former homosexual,’ as Plaintiffs posit”; and
  • The anti-discrimination claims independently failed because Domen didn’t allege that Vimeo had the requisite discriminatory intent.

Domen filed for appeal and, in March 2021, the 2nd Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling, noting that subsection (c)(2) of Section 230 is a broad provision that forecloses civil liability for providers that restrict access to content they consider objectionable. The court also held that Section 230 does not require the restriction to take any particular form, meaning that Vimeo’s removal of Domen’s account after providing a warning was acceptable.

Section 230 in the age of the #MeToo movement: Allegations, backlash, and immunity clauses continue to challenge “third party content”

A New York district court recently considered the application of Section 230 to non-traditional online publishers, in Elliott v. Donegan, (E.D.N.Y. June 30, 2020). The defendant, Moira Donegan, had started an electronic list of men in the media business who had allegedly committed some form of sexual violence. She titled her list “Sh**ty Media Men” and stored it on a cloud-based, publicly accessible spreadsheet. The spreadsheet went viral, unleashing a swift flurry of allegations with some 70 named men implicated in the spreadsheet. Major media outlets were poised to publish related stories. Among the men named was the plaintiff, Stephen Elliott, who claimed that the allegations about him on the list were false, and sued Donegan and a number of Jane Does for defamation.

Donegan claimed that third parties had posted the statements about Elliot, and that she was therefore immune under Section 230. The court first examined whether Donegan was “a provider or user of an interactive computer service,” which is a threshold requirement for the Section 230 safe harbor. Likening the spreadsheet to a message board that allows individuals to post comments, the court held that Donegan did qualify as an interactive computer service provider.

But the court was unable to determine, at least from the face of the complaint, whether the spreadsheet and its material were “third party content.” According to the plaintiff’s allegations, the defendant herself had fabricated and entered the spreadsheet item about him. If those allegations were true, then Section 230 would not apply. Based on this uncertainty, the court refused to dismiss, holding that Section 230 does not warrant the dismissal of a defamation claim where the plaintiff’s complaint did not “foreclose the possibility that defendant created or developed the allegedly unlawful content.”

In part five of our series, we’ll continue to examine the criticism from both sides of the political aisle, as well as calls to reform or even repeal Section 230.