California Assembly Bill 1678 designed to protect against age discrimination gets tagged by Ninth Circuit on First Amendment grounds: IMDb.com, Inc. v. Becerra

On June 19, 2020 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the content-based restrictions on speech contained within California’s Assembly Bill 1678 was facially unconstitutional because it “does not survive First Amendment scrutiny.”

I feel like if you live outside of glamorous places like California, New York and Florida, you may not be paying attention to laws being pushed by organizations like the Screen Actors Guild aka “SAG,” nevertheless … I try to keep my ear to the ground for cases that involve the First Amendment and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This case happens to raise both issues, although only the First Amendment matter is addressed here.

For those that may be unfamiliar, IBDb.com is an Internet Movie Database which provides a free public website that includes information about movies, television shows, and video games. It also contains information information on actors and crew members in the industry which may contain the subject’s age or date of birth. This is an incredibly popular site, the court opinion noting that as of January of 2017 “it ranked 54th most visited website in the world.” The information on the site is generated by users (just like you and I) but IMDb does employ a “Database Content Team tasked with reviewing the community’s additions and revisions for accuracy.”

Outside of the “free” user generated section, IMDb also introduced, back in 2002, a subscription-based service called “IMDbPro” for the industry professionals (actors/crew and recruiters) to essentially act as a LinkedIn but for Hollywood – providing space for professionals to upload resume type information, headshots, etc. and casting agents could search the database for talent.

Back in 2016 apparently SAG pushed for regulation in California (which was enacted as Assembly Bill 1687) that arguably targeted IMDb, in effort to curtail alleged age discrimination in the entertainment industry. No doubt a legitimate concern (as it is in many industries) however, often good intentions result in bad law.

AB 1687 was signed into law, codified at Cal. Civ. Code § 1798.83.5 and included the following provision:

A commercial online entertainment employment service provider that enters into a contractual agreement to provide employment services to an individual for a subscription payment shall not, upon request by the subscriber, do either of the following: (1) [p]ublish or make public the subscriber’s date of birth or age information in an online profile of the subscriber [or] (2) [s]hare the subscriber’s date of birth or age information with any Internet Web sites for the purpose of publication.

Cal. Civ. Code § 1798.83.5(b)(1)-(2)

The statute also provides, in pertinent part:

A commercial online entertainment employment service provider subject to subdivision (b) shall, within five days, remove from public view in an online profile of the subscriber the subscriber’s date of birth and age information on any companion Internet Web sites under its control upon specific request by the subscriber naming the Internet Web sites.

Cal. Civ. Code § 1798.83.5(c)

The practical affect of these provisions is that it requires that subscribers of IMDbPro, be able to request that IMDb, and that IMDb, upon such request, remove the subscriber’s age or date of birth from the subscriber’s profile (which I would think they could do on their own to the extent they have control over such profile data) AND, more problematically, anywhere else on their website where such information exists regardless of who created that content. This is now extending to content the IMDbPro subscribers may not have control over as it may have been generated by third-party users of the site.

The Court opinion explained that “[b]efore AB 1687 took effect, IMDb filed a complaint under 42 U.S.C § 1983 in the Northern District of California to prevent its enforcement. IMDb alleged that AB 1687 violated both the First Amendment and Commerce Clause of the Constitution, as well as the Communications Decency Act, 47 U.S.C. § 230(f)(2).” While there was much back and forth between the parties, the crux of the debate, and crucial for the appeal was the debate over the language prohibiting IMDb’s ability to publish the age of information without regard to the source of the information.

When considering the statutory language restricting what could be posted the Court of Appeals concluded:

  • AB 1687 implemented content-based restriction on speech (i.e., dissemination of date of birth or age) that is subject to First Amendment scrutiny.
  • AB 1687 did not present a situation where reduced protection would apply (e.g., where the speech at issue is balanced against a social interest in order and morality).
    • IMDb’s content did not constitute Commercial Speech.
    • IMDb’s content did not facilitate illegal conduct.
    • IMDb’s content did not implicate privacy concerns.
  • AB 1687 does not survive strict scrutiny because it was not the least restrictive means to accomplish the goal and it wasn’t narrowly tailored.

In conclusion the Court articulated a position that I wholly agree with: “Unlawful age discrimination has no place in the entertainment industry, or any other industry. But not all statutory means of ending such discrimination are constitutional.”

Citation: IMDb.com, Inc. v. Becerra, Case Nos. 18-15463, 18-15469 (9th Cir. 2020)

Disclaimer: This is for general information purposes only and none of this is meant to be legal advice and should not be relied upon as legal advice.

Facebook’s Terms of Service set jurisdiction for litigation – We Are the People, Inc. v. Facebook, Inc.

A common mistake, and arguably a waste of time, is to attempt to bring a breach of contract litigation in a jurisdiction other than the jurisdiction that the contract states. Years ago I wrote an article about the importance of boilerplate terms. One of the very first points I discuss is choice of law/choice of forum clauses.

Most people who are entering into a contract read the contract before they sign their name. Curiously, this doesn’t seem to translate when people are signing up for a website or app. I actually wrote about this too, warning people that they are responsible for their own actions when it comes to website Terms of Service and that they should read them before they sign up. Alas, we’re all human and the only real time people tend to look at the Terms of Service (i.e., the use contract) is when the poo has hit the fan. Even then, the first thing most people look at (or should look at if they are considering litigation) is the choice of law provisions.

In this instance, Plaintiff’s brought a lawsuit against Facebook in the Southern District of New York alleging that Facebook’s removal of content from Facebook’s pages violated Facebook’s “contractual and quasi-contractual obligations to keep Plaintiffs’ content posted indefinitely.” Anyone who has ever used Facebook would likely realize that the “contract” being discussed would stem from their Terms of Service. Facebook filed a motion to dismiss based upon Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act or, alternatively, to transfer venue.

Why would Facebook want to transfer venue? Because arguably California has better law for them. California has a strong anti-SLAPP law codified at Cal. Civ. Proc. § 425.16 (which applies to many cases that Facebook is likely to be named in) and many Section 230 cases have been ruled upon favorably to platforms. As such, Facebook’s Terms of Service contains a forum selection clause that requires any disputes over the contract be heard by a court in California; more specifically, exclusively in the Northern District of California (or a state court located in San Mateo County).

As I see it, these Plaintiffs either didn’t bother to read that part of the Terms of Service or they wanted to roll the dice and see if Facebook wouldn’t notice (Pro-tip: fat chance of that working). Regardless of the rationale, on June 3, 2020 the court quickly sided with Facebook ruling that the Terms of Service forum selection clause was “plainly mandatory” absent some showing that such clause was unenforceable (which Plaintiffs failed to do and, according to the Court, could not do in this particular circumstance (given Defendants’ memorandum of law) and Facebook’s Motion to Transfer was granted.

Citation: We Are the People, Inc. v. Facebook, Inc., Case No. 19-CV-8871 (JMF) (S.D. N.Y. 2020)

Disclaimer: This is for general information purposes only and none of this is meant to be legal advice and should not be relied upon as legal advice.

It’s hard to find caselaw to support your claims when you have none – Wilson v. Twitter

When the court’s opinion is barely over a page when printed, it’s a good sign that the underlying case had little to no merit.

This was a pro se lawsuit, filed against Twitter, because Twitter suspended at least three of Plaintiff’s accounts which were used to “insult gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people for violating the company’s terms of service, specifically its rule against hateful conduct.”

Plaintiff sued Twitter alleging that “[Twitter] suspended his accounts based on his heterosexual and Christian expressions” in violation of the First Amendment, 42 U.S.C. § 1981, Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and for alleged “legal abuse.”

The court was quick to deny all of the claims explaining that:

  1. Plaintiff had no First Amendment claim against Twitter because Twitter was not a state actor; having to painfully explain that just because Twitter was a publicly traded company it doesn’t transform Twitter into a state actor.
  2. Plaintiff had no claim under § 1981 because he didn’t allege racial discrimination.
  3. Plaintiff’s Civil Rights claim failed because: (1) under Title II, only injunctive relief is available (not damages like Plaintiff wanted); (2) Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act bars his claim; and (3) because Title II does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex or sexual orientation (an no facts were asserted to support this claim).
  4. Plaintiff failed to allege any conduct by Twitter that cold plausibly amount to legal abuse.

The court noted that Plaintiff “expresses his difficulty in finding case law to support his claims.” Well, I guess it would be hard to find caselaw to support claims when you have no valid ones.

Citation: Wilson v. Twitter, Civil Action No. 3:20-0054 (S.D. W.Va. 2020)

Disclaimer: This is for general information purposes only and none of this is meant to be legal advice and should not be relied upon as legal advice.

Section 230, the First Amendment, and You.

Maybe you’ve heard about “Section 230” on the news, or through social media channels, or perhaps by reading a little about it through an article written by a major publication … but unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that the information that you have received is necessarily accurate. I cannot count how many times over the last year I’ve seen what seems to be purposeful misstatements of the law … which then gets repeated over and over again – perhaps to fit some sort of political agenda. After all, each side of the isle so to speak is attacking the law, but curiously for different reasons. While I absolutely despise lumping people into categories, political or otherwise, the best way I can describe the ongoing debate is that the liberals believe that there is not enough censoring going on, and the conservatives think there is too much censorship going on. Meanwhile, you have the platforms hanging out in the middle often struggling to do more, with less…

In this article I will try to explain why I believe it is important that even lay people understand Section 230 and dispel some of the most common myths that continually spread throughout the Internet as gospel … even from our own Congressional representatives.

WHY LAY PEOPLE SHOULD CARE ABOUT SECTION 230

Not everyone who reads this will remember what it was like before the Internet. If you’re not, ask your elders what it was like to be “talked at” by your local television news station or news paper. There was no real open dialog absent face to face or over the telephone communications. Your audience was limited who you would get to share information with. Even if you wrote a “letter to the Editor” at a local newspaper it didn’t mean that your “opinion” was necessarily going to be posted. If you’re old end enough to remember that, and are nodding your head in agreement … I encourage you to spend some time remembering what that was like.

If you like being able to share information freely, and to comment on information freely, you absolutely should care about what many refer to as “Section 230.” So many of my friends, family and colleagues say “I don’t understand Section 230 and I don’t care to … that’s your space” yet these are the people that I see posting content online about their business via LinkedIn or other social media platforms, sharing reviews of businesses they have been to, looking up information on Wikimedia, sharing their general opinion and/or otherwise dialog and debate over topics that are important to them, etc. In a large way, whether you know it or not, Section 230 has powered your ability to interact online in this way and has drastically shaped the Internet as we know it today.

IN GENERAL: SECTION 230 EXPLAINED

The Communications Decency Act (47 U.S.C. § 230) (often referred to as “Section 230” or “CDA”), in brief, is a federal law enacted in 1996 that, with a few exceptions carved out within the statute, protects the owners of websites/search engines/applications (each often synonymously referred to as “platforms”) from liability from third-party content.  Generally speaking, if the platform didn’t actually create the content, they traditionally aren’t liable for it. Indeed, there are a few exceptions, but for now, we’ll keep this simple. Platforms that allow third-party content are often referred to as user generated content (“UGC”) sites.  Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Reddit, TripAdvisor, and Yelp are all examples of such platforms and reasonable minds would likely agree that there is social utility behind each of these sites. That said, these household recognized platform “giants” aren’t the only platforms on the internet that have social utility and benefit from the CDA.  Indeed, it covers all of the smaller platforms, including bloggers or journalists who desire to allow people to comment about articles/content on their websites.

If you’re looking for some sort of a deep dive on the history of the law, I encourage you to pick up a copy of Jeff Kosseff’s book titled The Twenty-Six Words That Created The Internet.

ONGOING “TECHLASH” WITH SECTION 230 IN THE CROSS-HAIRS

One would be entirely naive to even suggest that the Internet is perfect. If you ask me, it’s far from perfect. I readily concede that indeed there are harms that happen online. To be fair, harms happen offline too and they always have. Sometimes humans just suck. I’ve discussed a lot of this in my ongoing blog article series Fighting Fair on the Internet. What has been interesting to me is that many seem to want to blame people’s bad behavior on technology and to try and hold technology companies liable for what bad people do using their technology.

I look at technology as a tool. By analogy, a hammer is a tool yet we don’t hold the hammer manufacturing company or the store that sold the hammer to the consumer liable when a bad guy goes and beats someone to death with it. I imagine the counter-argument is that technology is in the best position to help stop the harms. Perhaps that may be true to a degree (and I believe many platforms do try to assist by moderating content and otherwise setting certain rules for their sites) but the question becomes, should they actually be liable? If you’re a Section 230 “purist” the answer is “No.” Why? Because Section 230 immunizes platforms from liability for what other people say or do on their platforms.

The government, however, seems to have its’ own set of ideas. We already saw an amendment to Section 230 with FOSTA (the anti-sex trafficking amendment). Unfortunately, good intentions often make for bad law, and, in my opinion, FOSTA was one of those laws which has been arguably proven to cause more harm than good. I could explain why, but I’ll save that discussion for another time.

Then, in February of this year, the DOJ had a “workshop” on Section 230. I was fortunate enough to be in the audience in Washington, D.C. where it was held and recently wrote an article breaking down that “workshop.” If you’re interested in all the juicy details, feel free to read that article but in summary it basically was four hours’ worth of : humans are bad and do bad things; technology is a tool in which bad humans do bad things; technology/platforms need to find a way to solve the bad human problem or face liability for what bad humans occasionally do with the tools they create; we want to make changes to the law even though we have no empirical evidence to support the position that this is an epidemic rather than a minority…because bad people.

Shortly thereafter the Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act of 2020 or EARN IT Act of 2019-2020 Bill was dropped which is designed to prevent the online sexual exploitation of children. While this sounds noble (FOSTA did too) when you unpack it all, and look at the bigger picture, it’s more government attempts to mess with free speech and online privacy/security in the form of yet another amendment to Section 230 under the guise of being “for the children.” I have lots of thoughts on this, but I will save this for another article another day too.

This brings us to the most recent attack on Section 230. The last two (2) weeks have been a “fun” time for those of us who care about Section 230 and its application. Remember how I mentioned above that some conservatives are of the opinion that there is too much censorship online? This often refers to the notion that social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, and even Google) censor or otherwise block conservative speech. Setting aside whether this actually happens or not (I’ve heard arguments pointing both directions on this issue) President Trump shined a big old light on this notion recently.

Let me first state off by saying that there is a ton of misinformation that is shared online. It doesn’t help that many people in society will quickly share things without actually reading it or conducting research to see if the content they are sharing has any validity to it but will spend 15 minutes taking a data mining quiz only to find out what kind of a potato they are. Who knew the 2006 movie Idiocracy was going to be so prophetic?

Along with other perceived harmful content, platforms have been struggling with how to handle such misinformation. Some have considered adding more speech by way of notifications or “labels” as Twitter calls them, to advise their users that the information may be wholly made up or modified, shared in a deceptive manner, likely to impact public safety or otherwise cause serious harm. Best I could tell, at least as far as Twitter goes, this seems to be a relatively new effort. Side note: While ideal in a perfect world, I’m not personally a fan of social media platforms fact checking because: 1) it’s very hard to be an arbiter of truth; 2) it’s incredibly hard to do it at scale; 3) once you start, people will expect you to do it on every bit of content that goes out – and that’s virtually impossible; and 4) if you fail to fact check something that turns out to be false or otherwise misleading, one might assume that such content is accurate because they come to rely on the fact checking.

So what kicked off the latest “Section 230 tirade”? Twitter “fact checked” President Trump in two different tweets on May 26th, 2020 by adding in a “label” to the bottom of the Tweets (which you have to click on to actually see – they don’t transfer when you embed them as I’ve done here) that said “Get the facts about mail-in-ballots.” This clearly suggests that Twitter was in disagreement with information that the President Tweeted and likely wanted its users to be aware of alternative views.

To me, that doesn’t seem that bad. I can see some validity to President Trump’s concern. I can also see an alternative argument, especially since I typically mail in my voting ballot. If you think about it, pretty much everything that comes out of a politician’s mouth is subjective. Nevertheless, President Trump got upset over the situation and then suggested that Twitter was “completely stifling FREE SPEECH” and then made veiled threats about not allowing that to happen.

If we know anything about this President, it is that when he’s annoyed with something, he will take some sort of action. President Trump ultimately ended up signing an Executive Order on “Preventing Online Censorship” a mere two (2) days later. For those that are interested, while certainly left leaning, and non-favorable to our commander in chief, Santa Clara Law Professor Eric Goldman provided a great legal analysis of the Executive Order, calling it “political theater.” Even if you align yourself with the “conservative” base, I would encourage you to set aside the Professor’s personal opinions (we all have opinions) and focus on the meat of the legal argument. It’s good.

Of course, and as expected, the Internet looses its mind and all the legal scholars and practitioners come out of the woodwork, commenting on Section 230 and the newly signed Executive Order, myself included. The day after of the Executive Order was signed (and likely President Trump read all the criticisms) he Tweeted out “REVOKE 230!”

So this is where I have to sigh heavily. Indeed there is irony in the fact that the President is calling for the revocation of the very same law that allowed innovation and Twitter to even become a “thing” and which also makes it possible for him to reach out and connect to millions of people, in real time, in a pretty much unfiltered way as we’ve seen, for free because he has the application loaded on his smart phone. In my opinion, but for Section 230, it is entirely possible Twitter, Facebook and all the other forms of social media and interactive user sites would not exist today; at least not as we know it. Additionally, I find it ironic that President Trump is making free speech arguments when he’s commenting about, and on, a private platform.

As I said though, this attack on Section 230 isn’t just stemming from the conservative side. Even Joe Biden has suggested that Section 230 should be “repealed immediately” but he’s on the whole social media companies censor too little train which is completely opposite of the reasons that people like President Trump wants it revoked.

HOW VERY AMERICAN OF US

How many times have you heard that American’s are self centered jerks? Well, Americans do love their Constitutional rights, especially when it comes to falling in love with their own opinions and the freedom to share those opinions. Moreover, when it comes to the whole content moderation and First Amendment debate, we often look at tech giants as purely American companies. True, these companies did develop here (arguably in part thanks to Section 230) however, what many people fail to consider is that many of these platforms operate globally. As such, they are often trying to balance the rules and regulations of the U.S. with the rules and regulations of competing global interests.

As stated, Americans are very proud of the rights granted to them, including the First Amendment right to free speech (although after reading some opinions lately I’m beginning to wonder if half the population slept through or otherwise skipped high school civics class … or worse, slept through Constitutional Law while in law school). However, not all societies have this speech right. In fact, Europe’s laws value the privacy as a right, over the freedom of expression. A prime example of this playing out is Europe’s Right to Be Forgotten law.

When we demand that these tech giants cater to us, here in the United States, we are forgetting that these companies have other rules and regulations that they have to take into consideration when trying to set and implement standards for their users. What is good for us here in the U.S. may not be good for the rest of the world, which are also their customers.

SECTION 230 AND FIRST AMENDMENT MYTHS SPREAD LIKE WILDFIRE

What has been most frustrating to me, as someone who practices law in this area and has a lot of knowledge when it comes to the business of operating platforms, content moderation, and the applicability of Section 230, is how many people who should know better get it wrong. I’m talking about our President, Congressional representatives, and media outlets … so many of them, getting it wrong. And what happens from there? You get other people who regurgitate the same uneducated or otherwise purposefully misstatements in articles that get shared which further perpetuates the ignorance of the law and how things actually work.

UPDATED: For example, just today Jeff Kosseff Tweeted out a thread that describes a history of the New York Times failing to accurately explain Section 230 in various articles and how one of these articles ended up being quoted by a NJ federal judge. It’s a good thread. You should read it.

MYTH: A SITE IS EITHER A “PLATFORM” OR A “PUBLISHER”

Contrary to so many people I’ve listened to speak, or articles that I’ve read, when it comes to online UGC platforms, there is no distinction between “publisher” and a “platform.”  You aren’t comparing the New York Times to Twitter.  Working for a newspaper is not like working for a UGC platform.  Those are entirely different business models … apples and oranges. Unfortunately, that’s another spot where many people, like this author, get caught up and confused. 

UGC platforms are not in the business of creating content themselves but rather in the business of setting their own rules and allowing third-parties (i.e., you and I here on this platform) to post content in accordance with those rules.  Even for those who point to some publications erring on the side of caution on 2006-2008 re editing UGC comments doesn’t mean that’s how the law actually was interpreted.  We have decades worth of jurisprudence interpreting Section 230 (which is what the judicial branch does – interprets the law, not the FCC which is an independent organization overseen by Congress).  Platforms absolutely have the right to moderate the content which they did not create and kick people off of their platform for violation of their rules. 

Think if it this way – have you ever heard your parents say (or maybe you’ve said this to your own kids) “My house, my rules.  If you don’t like the rules, get your own house.”  If anyone actually researches the history, that’s why Section 230 was created … to remove the moderator’s dilemma.  A platform’s choice of what to allow, or disallow, has no bearing (for the sake of this argument here) on the applicability of Section 230.  Arguably, UGC platforms also have a First Amendment right to choose what they want to publish, or not publish.

MYTH: PLATFORMS HAVE TO BE NEUTRAL FOR SECTION 230 TO APPLY

Contrary to the misinformation being spewed all over (including by government representatives – which I find disappointing) Section 230 has never had a “neutrality” caveat for protection.  Moreover, in the context of the issue of political speech, Senator Ron Wyden, who was a co-author for the law even stated recently on Twitter “let me make this clear: there is nothing in the law about political neutrality.” 

You can’t get much closer to understanding Congressional intent of the law than getting words directly from the co-author of the law. 

Quite frankly, there is no such thing as a “neutral platform.”  If there were, as someone that deals with content escalations for platforms, I can tell you that we would have a very UGLY Internet because sometimes people just suck.

MYTH: CENSORSHIP OF SPEECH BY A PLATFORM VIOLATES THE FIRST AMENDMENT

The First Amendment absolutely protects the freedom of speech.  In theory, you are free to put on a sandwich board that says (insert whatever you take issue with) and walk up and down the street if you want.  In fact, we’re seeing such constitutionally protected demonstrations currently with the protesters all over the country in connection to the death of George Floyd. Such peaceful demonstration is absolutely protected under the First Amendment. 

What the First Amendment does not do (and this seems to get lost on people for some reason) is give one the right to amplification of that speech on a private platform.  One might wish that were the case, but wishful thinking does equal law. Unless and until there is some law, that passes judicial scrutiny, which deems these private platforms a public square subject to the same restrictions that is imposed on the government, they absolutely do not have to let you say everything and anything you want. Chances are, this is also explained in their Terms of Service, which you probably didn’t read, but you should.

If you’re going to listen to anyone provide an opinion on Section 230, perhaps one would want to listen to a co-author of the law itself:

Think of it this way, if you are a bar owner and you have a drunk and disorderly guy in you bar that is clearly annoying your other customers, would you want the ability to 86 the person or do you want the government to tell you that as long as you are open to the public you have to let that person stay in your bar even if you risk losing other customers because someone is being obnoxious? Of course you want to be able to bounce that person out! It’s not really any different for platform operators.

LET’S KEEP THE CONVERSATION GOING BUT NOT MAKE RASH DECISIONS

Do platforms have the best of both worlds … perhaps.  But what is worse?  The way it is now with Section 230 or what it would be like without Section 230?  Frankly, I choose a world with Section 230.  Without Section 230, the Internet as we know it will change. 

While we’ve never seen what the Internet looks like without Section 230 I can imagine we would go to one of two options: 1) an Internet where platforms are afraid to moderate content and therefore everything and anything would go up, leaving us with a very ugly Internet (because people are unfathomably rude and disgusting – I mean, content moderators have suffered from PTSD for having to look at what nasty humans try to share); or 2) an Internet where platforms are afraid of liability and either UGC sites will cease to exist altogether or they may go to a notice and take down model where as soon a someone sees something they are offended by or otherwise don’t like, they will tell the platform the information is false, defamatory, harassing, etc. and that content would likely automatically come down. The Internet, and public discussion, will be at the whim of a heckler’s veto. You think speech is curtailed now? Just wait until the society of “everyone is offended” gets a hold of it.

As I mentioned to begin with, I don’t think that the Internet is perfect, but neither are humans and neither is life. While I believe there may be some concessions to be had, after in-depth studies and research (after all, we’ve only got some 24 years of data to work with and those first years really don’t count in my book) I think it foolish to be making rash decisions based upon political agendas. If the politicians want their own platform where they aren’t going to be “censored” and the people have ease of access to such information … create one! That’s what is great about this country … we have the ability to innovate … well, at least for now.

Disclaimer: This is for general information purposes only and none of this is meant to be legal advice and should not be relied upon as legal advice.

Breaking down the DOJ Section 230 Workshop: Stuck in the Middle With You

The current debate over Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (47 U.S.C. § 230) (often referred to as “Section 230” or “CDA”) has many feeling a bit like the lyrics from Stealers Wheel – Stuck in The Middle With You, especially the lines where it says “clowns to the left of me, jokers to my right, here I am stuck in the middle with you.” As polarizing as the two extremes of the political spectrum seem to be these days, so are the arguments about Section 230.  Arguably the troubling debate is compounded by politicians who either don’t understand the law, or purposefully make misstatements about the law in attempt to further their own political agenda.

For those who may not be familiar with the Communications Decency Act, in brief, it is federal law enacted in 1996 that, with a few exceptions carved out within the statute, protects the owners of websites/search engines/applications (each often synonymously referred to as “platforms”) from liability from third-party content.  Platforms that allow third-party content are often referred to as user generated content (“UGC”) sites.  Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Reddit, TripAdvisor, and Yelp are all examples of such platforms and reasonable minds would likely agree that there is social utility behind each of these sites. That said, these household recognized platform “giants” aren’t the only platforms on the internet that have social utility and benefit from the CDA.  Indeed, it covers all of the smaller platforms, including bloggers or journalists who desire to allow people to comment about articles/content on their websites. 

So, what’s the debate over?  Essentially the difficult realities about humans and technology.  I doubt there would be argument over the statement that the Internet has come a long way since the early days of CompuServe, Prodigy and AOL. I also believe that there would be little argument that humans are flawed.  Greed was prevalent and atrocities were happening long before the advent of the Internet.  Similarly, technology isn’t perfect either.  If technology were perfect from the start, we wouldn’t ever need updates … version 1.0 would be perfect, all the time, every time.  That isn’t the world that we live in though … and that’s the root of the rub, so to speak.

Since the enactment of the CDA, an abundance of lawsuits have been initiated against platforms, the results of which further defined the breadth of the law.  For those really wanting to learn more and obtain a more historical perspective on how the CDA came to be, one could read Jeff Kosseff’s book called The Twenty Six Words That Created the Internet.  To help better understand some of the current debate over this law which will be discussed shortly, this may be a good opportunity to point out a few of the (generally speaking) practical implications of Section 230:

  1. Unless a platform wholly creates or materially contributes to content on its platform, it will not be held liable for the content created by a third-party.  This immunity from liability has also been extended to other tort theories of liability where it is ultimately found that such theory stems from the third-party content.
  2. The act of filtering content by a platform does not suddenly transform it into a “publisher” aka the person that created the content in the first place, for the purposes of imposing liability.
  3. A platform will not be liable for their decision to keep content up, or take content down, regardless of whether such information may be perceived as harmful (such as content alleged to be defamatory). 
  4. Injunctive relief (such as a take down order from a court) is legally ineffective against a platform if such order relates to content that they would have immunity for.

These four general principals are the result of litigation that ensued against platforms over the past 23+ years. However, a few fairly recent high-profile cases stemming from atrocities, and our current administration (from the President down), has put Section 230 in the crosshairs and desires for another amendment.  The question is, amendment for what?  One side says platforms censor too much, the other side says platforms censor too little, platforms and technology companies are being pressured to  implement stronger data privacy and security for their users worldwide while the U.S. government is complaining about measures being taken are too strong and therefore allegedly hindering their investigations.  Meanwhile the majority of the platforms are singing “stuck in the middle with you” trying to do the best they can for their users with the resources they have, which unless you’re “big Internet or big tech” is typically pretty limited.  And frankly, the Mark Zuckerberg’s of the world don’t speak for all platforms because not all platforms are like Facebook nor do they have the kind of resources that Facebook has.  When it comes to implementation of new rules and regulations, resources matter.

On January 19, 2020 the United States Department of Justice announced that they would be hosting a “Workshop on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act” on February 19, 2020 in Washington, DC.  The title of the workshop “Section 230 – Nurturing Innovation or Fostering Unaccountability?”  The stated purpose of the event was to “[D]iscuss Section 230 … its expansive interpretation by the courts, its impact on the American people and business community, and whether improvements to the law should be made.”  The title of the workshop was intriguing because it seemed to suggest that the answer was one or the other when the two concepts are not mutually exclusive.

On February 11, 2020 the formal agenda for the workshop (the link to which has since been removed from the government’s website) was released.  The agenda outlined three separate discussion panels:

  • Panel 1:  Litigating Section 230 which was to discuss the history, evolution and current application of Section 230 in private litigation;
  • Panel 2: Addressing Illicit Activity Online which was to discuss whether Section 230 encourages or discourages platforms to address online harms, such as child exploitation, revenge porn, and terrorism, and its impact on law enforcement; and
  • Panel 3: Imagining the Alternative which was to discuss the implications on competition, investment, and speech of Section 230 and proposed changes. 

The panelists were made up of legal scholars, trade associations and a few outside counsel who represent plaintiffs or defendants.  More specifically, the panels were filled with many of the often empaneled Section 230 folks including legal scholars like Eric Goldman, Jeff Kosseff; Kate Klonik, Mary Ann Franks, and staunch anti- Section 230 attorney Carrie Goldberg, a victim’s rights attorney that specializes in sexual privacy violations.  Added to the mix was also Patrick Carome who is famous for his Section 230 litigation work, defending many major platforms and organizations like Twitter, Facebook, Google, Craigslist, AirBnB, Yahoo! and the Internet Association.  Other speakers included Annie McAdams, Benjamin Zipupsky, Doug Peterson, Matt Schruers, Yiota Souras, David Chavern, Neil Chilson, Pam Dixon, and Julie Samuels.

A review of the individual panelist’s bios would likely signal that the government didn’t want to include the actual stakeholders, i.e., representation from any platform’s in-house counsel or in-house policy.  While not discounting the value of the speakers scheduled to be on panel, one may find it odd that those who deal with the matters every day, who represent entities that would be the most impacted by modifications to Section 230, who would be in the best position to determine what is or is not feasible to implement in the terms of changes, if changes to Section 230 were to happen, had no seat at the discussion table.  This observation was wide spread … much discussion on social media about the lack of representation of the true “stakeholders” took place with many opining that it wasn’t likely to be a fair and balanced debate and that this was nothing more than an attempt by U.S. Attorney General William Barr to gather support for the bill relating to punishing platforms/tech companies for implementing end-to-end encryption.  One could opine that the Bill really has less to do with Section 230 and more to do with the Government wanting access to data that platforms may have on a few perpetrators who happen to be using a platform/tech service.

If you aren’t clear on what is being referenced above, it bears mentioning that there is a Bill titled “Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act of 2019” aka “EARN IT Act of 2019” that was proposed by Senator Lindsey Graham.  This bill came approximately two weeks after Apple was ordered by AG Barr to unlock and decrypt the Pensacola shooter’s iPhone.  When Apple responded that they couldn’t comply with the request, the government was not happy.  An article written by CATO Institute stated that “During a Senate Judiciary hearing on encryption in December Graham issued a warning to Facebook and Apple: ‘this time next year, if we haven’t found a way that you can live with, we will impose our will on you.’”  Given this information, and the agenda topics, the timing of the Section 230 workshop seemed a bit more than coincidence.  In fact, according to an article in Minnesota Lawyer, Professor Eric Goldman pointed out that the “DOJ is in a weird position to be convening a roundtable on a topic that isn’t in their wheelhouse.”

As odd as the whole thing may have seemed, I had the privilege of attending the Section 230 “Workshop”.  I say “workshop” because it was a straight lecture without the opportunity for there to be any meaningful Q&A dialog from the audience.  Speaking of the audience, of the people I had direct contact with, the audience consisted of reporters, internet/tech/first amendment attorneys, in-house counsel/representatives from platforms, industry association representatives, individual business representatives, and law students.  The conversations that I personally had, and personally overheard, was suggestive that the UGC platform industry (the real stakeholders) were all concerned or otherwise curious about what the government was trying to do to the law that shields platforms from liability for UGC.

PANEL OVERVIEW:

After sitting through nearly four hours’ worth of lecture, and even though I felt the discussion to be a bit more well-rounded than I anticipated, I still feel that the entire workshop could be summarized as follows: “humans are bad and do bad things; technology is a tool in which bad humans do bad things; technology/platforms need to find a way to solve the bad human problem or face liability for what bad humans occasionally do with the tools they create; we want to make changes to the law even though we have no empirical evidence to support the position that this is an epidemic rather than a minority…because bad people.”

Perhaps that is a bit of an oversimplification but honestly, if you watch the whole lecture, that’s what it boils down to.

The harms discussed during the different panels included:

  • Libel (brief mention)
  • Sex trafficking (Backpage.com, FOSTA, etc.)
  • Sexual exploitation of children (CSAM)
  • Revenge porn aka Non-Consensual Pornography aka Technology Facilitated Harassment
  • Sale of drugs online (brief mention)
  • Sale of alleged harmful products (brief mention)
  • Product liability theory as applied to platforms (ala Herrik v. Grindr)

PANEL #1:

In traditional fashion, the pro-Section 230 advocates explained the history of the CDA, how it is important to all platforms that allow UGC, not just “big tech” and resonated on the social utility of the Internet … platforms large and small.  However, the anti-Section 230 panelists pointed to mainly harms caused by platforms (though not elaborated on which ones) by not removing sexually related content (though defamation was a short mention in the beginning). 

Ms. Adams seemed to focus on sex trafficking – touching on how once Backpage.com was shut down that a similar close site started up in Amsterdam. She referred to the issues she was speaking about as a “public health crisis.” Of course, Ms. Goldberg raised argument relating to the prominent Herrik v Grindr case wherein she argued a product liability theory as a work around Section 230. That case ended when writ was denied by the U.S. Supreme Court in October of 2019. I’ve heard Ms. Goldberg speak on this case a few times and one thing she continually harps on is the fact that the Grindr didn’t have way to keep Mr. Herrik’s ex from using their website. She seems surprised by this. As someone who represents platforms, it makes perfect sense to me. We must not forget that people can create multiple user profiles, from multiple devices, from multiple IP addresses, around the world. Sorry, Plaintiff attorneys…the platforms’ crystal ball is in the shop on these issues … at least for now. Don’t misunderstand me. I believe Ms. Goldberg is fighting the good fight, and her struggle on behalf of her clients is real! I admire her work and no doubt she sees it with a lens from the trenches she is in. That said, we can’t lose sight of reality of how things actually work versus how we’d like them to work.

PANEL #2:

There was a clear plea from Ms. Franks and Ms. Souras for something to be done about sexual images, including those exploiting children.  I am 100% in agreement that while 46 states have enacted anti “revenge porn” or better termed Non-Consensual Pornography laws, such laws aren’t strong enough because of the malicious intent requirement.  All a perpetrator has to say is “I didn’t mean to harm victim, I did it for entertainment” or another seemingly benign purpose and poof – case closed.”  That struggle is difficult! 

No reasonable person thinks these kinds of things are okay yet there seemed to be an argument that platforms don’t do enough to police and report such content.  The question becomes why is that?  Lack of funding and resources would be my guess…either on the side of the platform OR, quite frankly, on a under-funded/under-resourced government or agency to actually appropriately handle what is reported.  What would be the sense of reporting unless you knew for sure that content was actionable for one, and that the agency it is being reported to would actually do anything about it?

Interestingly, Ms. Souras made the comment that after FOSTA no other sites (like Backpage.com) rose up.  Curiously, that directly contradicted Ms. Adams’s statement about the Amsterdam website popping up after Backpage.com was shut down.  So which is it?  Pro-FOSTA statements also directly contradicts what I’ve heard last October at a workshop put on by ASU’s Project Humanities entitled “Ethics and Intersectionality of the Sext Trade” which covered the complexities of sex trafficking and sex work.  Problems with FOSTA was raised during that workshop.  Quite frankly, I see all flowery statements about FOSTA as nothing more than trying to put lipstick on a pig; trying to make a well-intentioned, emotionally driven, law look like it is working when it isn’t.

Outside of the comments by Ms. Franks and Ms. Souras, AG Doug Peterson out of Nebraska did admit that the industry may self-regulate and sometimes that happens quickly, but he still complained that the state criminal law preemption makes his job more difficult and advocated for an amendment to include state and territory criminal law to the list of exemptions.  While that may sound moderate, the two can be different and arguably such amendment would be overbroad when you are only talking about sexual images.  Further, the inclusion of Mr. Peterson almost seemed as a plug in for a subtle push about how the government allegedly can’t do their job without modification to Section 230 – and I think a part of the was leaning towards, while not making a big mention about it, was the end-to-end encryption debate.  In rebuttal to this notion, Matt Schruers suggested that Section 230 doesn’t need to be amended but that the government needs more resources so they can do a better job with the existing laws, and encouraged tech to work to do better as they can – suggesting efforts from both sides would be helpful

One last important point made during this panel was Kate Klonik making the distinction between the big companies and other sites that are hosting non-consensual pornography.  It is important to keep in mind that different platforms have different economic incentives and that platforms are driven by economics.  I agree with Ms. Klonik that we are in a massive “norm setting” period where we are trying to figure out what to do with things and that we can’t look to tech to fix bad humans (although it can help).  Sometimes to have good things, we have to accept a little bad as the trade-off.

PANEL #3

This last panel was mostly a re-cap of the benefits of Section 230; the struggles that we fact when trying to regulate with a one-size fits all mentality and, I think most of the panelists seem to be agreeing that there needs to be some research done before we go making changes because we don’t want unintended consequences.  That is something I’ve been saying for a while and reiterated during the ABA’s Forum on Communications Law Digital Communications Committee hosted a free CLE titled “Summer School: Content Moderation 101” wherein Jeff Kosseff and I, in a moderated panel by Elisa D’Amico, Partner at K&L Gates, discussed Section 230 and a platform’s struggle with content moderation.  Out of this whole panel, the one speaker that had most people grumbling in the audience was David Chavern who is the President of News Media Alliance.  When speaking about solutions, Mr. Chavern likened Internet platforms to that of traditional media as if he was comparing two oranges and opined that platforms should be liable just like newspapers.  Perhaps he doesn’t understand the difference between first party content and third-party content.  The distinction between the two is huge and therefore I found his commentary to be the least relevant and helpful to the discussion. 

SUMMARY:

In summary, there seem to be a few emotion evoking ills in society (non-consensual pornography, exploitation of children, sex trafficking, physical attacks on victims, fraud, and the drug/opioid crisis) that the government is trying to find methods to solve.  That said, I don’t think amending Section 230 is the way to address that unless and until there is reliable and unbiased data that would suggest that the cure won’t be worse than the disease. Are the ills being discussed really prevalent, or do we just think they are because they are being pushed out through information channels on a 24-hour news/information cycle?

Indeed, reasonable minds would agree that we, as a society, should try and stop harms where we can, but we also have to stop regulating based upon emotions.  We saw that with FOSTA and arguably, it has made things more difficult on law enforcement, victims alike and has had unintended consequences, including chilling speech, on others.  You simply cannot regulate the hate out of the hearts and minds of humans and you cannot expect technology to solve such a problem either.  Nevertheless, that seems to be the position of many of the critics of Section 230.

For more reading and additional perspectives on the DOJ Section 230 Workshop, check out these additional links:

Disclaimer: This is for general information purposes only and none of this is meant to be legal advice and should not be relied upon as legal advice.

Don’t Let Scammers During COVID-19 Fool You!

If COVID-19 wasn’t stressful enough, now you have to watch out for scammers trying to take advantage of you. Below are a few tips:

  • Watch out for any links that get texted to your phone that promise to track coronavirus (through an app or otherwise). This might be malware designed to spy on you or get other information such as logins and passwords.
  • Watch our for links in random emails talking about the coronavirus. Phishing attempts are running rampant right now. If you aren’t sure about a link in an email you get, don’t click on it. If you aren’t sure about an email that’s in your inbox, simply call the company to ensure it’s a legitimate email and safe to open. Better to make a phone call than be sorry.
  • Understand that there is a flood of disinformation/misinformation about the virus, including remedies, cures, etc. This is especially true among the naturopath/DIY groups. If it is not coming from a reputable source (local hospital, your doctor’s office, the CDC, WHO, etc.) please don’t share it. If you do share information, cite the source that you obtained the information from so others can determine reliability of the information. Remember, anyone can buy a domain and anyone can make a meme.
  • If you receive a call from someone claiming to be from a charity, asking for personal information of financial information, hang up. If you want to give to a charity, go directly to their website. Also, only go to known charities. Just because a website looks like a “charity” doesn’t mean it is. Again, anyone can buy a domain and make a website.
  • If random strangers are showing up at your house, suggesting they are there to do coronavirus testing, etc., do not let them in your house! Ask for credentials/information and then call the organization that they say they are with to confirm they are who they say they are. Remember, anyone can lift a picture or information off of a website and make a fake badge, etc.

Some related reading:

https://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2020/03/the-internet-is-drowning-in-covid-19-related-malware-and-phishing-scams/

https://www.forbes.com/sites/thomasbrewster/2020/03/18/coronavirus-scam-alert-covid-19-map-malware-can-spy-on-you-through-your-android-microphone-and-camera/

https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2020/03/17/fda-chief-stop-using-unapproved-products-claiming-prevent-coronavirus-column/5041971002/

https://www.military.com/daily-news/2020/03/16/army-white-house-issue-warnings-about-coronavirus-hoaxes-and-scams.html

Lexington PD advises of COVID-19 related phone scam

Disclaimer: This is for general information purposes only and none of this is meant to be legal advice and should not be relied upon as legal advice.

From the #MoronFiles | Cease and Desist from Attorney Captain Can’t Search Google

PRELUDE: 

Without getting into too much detail, let’s just say that I see all kinds of crazy stuff in my line of work. Some of the things that come across my desk make me frustrated with society and you probably know that I blog about Fighting Fair on the Internet because of the things that I see.  In addition, sometimes the things that I see that frustrate me include others that are part of my profession. Like any profession, there are certain shit bags (okay, maybe they aren’t all shitbags…just most of them) out there that give us lawyers a bad reputation and quite frankly, it pisses me off.

Some things that I see warrant a full blog article – so I write those.  Others just warrant a short mention because I find the conduct both outrageous AND funny.  I’ve decided to start a collection of true stories, with some identifying facts modified so I don’t have to deal with the psychos, and will be continually adding more of those to the #MORONFILES for your reading pleasure:

03/11/2019 – #MORONFILES ENTRY

There are times that I would LOVE to publish the word vomit letters that I read … but you know, people be “cray” and I doubt some of the attorneys/firms that write the garbage I see are necessarily exempt from that and I don’t have the time nor patience to deal with amplified absurdity that would surely come from me making fun of them. I’m not infallible…and I’m sure there are things that I have done that are boneheaded myself…but this stuff is SO BAD that I can’t not write about it.

Today’s dumpster fire of a letter was sent via snail mail, on letterhead from a “firm” that doesn’t contain a website nor email address listed for communications. Oh, but it has a fax listed! Who, besides the IRS, still uses fax machines these days? Even my grandma was using email when she was still with us. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this though. I’ve seen countless letterhead like this. If this is you and you are in the legal space (and likely in other professions as well) know that I have run polls on Twitter asking about this and you are absolutely being judged negatively, right or wrong, by your peers.

Okay, setting aside the archaic letterhead, it’s a run of the mill cease and desist letter that, like all the other ones I have ever seen, doesn’t have any merit to it. What is sad is that this attorney likely charged their client good, hard earned money, to write this piece of crap. (sad face emoji)

Letter content in a nutshell: blah blah state law is clear…recites basic elements of civil tort (without legal citation)…therefore a case for tort is clear. You have blah blah days to take the action we want or else we will start litigation.

So what’s wrong with this particular letter? Well, it’s good that the attorney can regurgitate the basic elements of the tort they are claiming happened, however, this is yet another bonehead that has failed to check in with their statute of limitation in blah blah state. For the civil tort in which they are raising, that statute of limitations was blown a while ago and therefore they won’t have a proper cause of action under the civil tort claim that they are trying to pretend would exist. If you’ve been keeping up with other articles, you know what I think about that. Oh, and for those of you that want to pipe in and chirp about tolling statute of limitations, yes, that is a thing – but not in the circumstances that I would have to deal with, so here…nope. Not applicable.

Beyond that, the ongoing word vomit written in this letter HEAVILY suggests that this attorney has not the first clue what the heck they are even talking about. I mean, the fact that I’m reading the letter in the first place suggests that they have done NO legal research on this topic, whatsoever. I’m guessing another dabbler (facepalm emoji) who wasn’t even smart enough to try a search on Google first. Look…I don’t know everything and I don’t even try to pretend that I know everything…and I’ve been in the field for 20 years. As such I don’t expect everyone to know everything either…but I sure as shit am not going to send out a letter, threatening litigation, without KNOWING that my threat was legally sound. That’s just fucking stupid and arguably unethical. Hence this story making the #MoronFiles.

Let’s just also say that blah blah state also has anti-SLAPP protections for victims of bullshit lawsuits like attorney Captain Can’t Search Google is trying to threaten. Should Captain Can’t Search Google file such a lawsuit, my client would be such a victim of a bullshit lawsuit and it’s incredibly likely that the attorney and client could be on the hook, statutorily, for attorneys fees and costs.

Sometimes I just want to respond with (but I won’t): What the hell is the matter with you? Did you eat paint chips for breakfast? Google is your friend, you ought to try it sometime. I guess I’m feisty today. Perhaps I need another cup of coffee…

Until next time friends!

The Supreme Court of the United States Denies Petition to Review the California Supreme Court’s Decision in Hassell v. Bird

Another win for Section 230 advocates. Back in July I wrote a blog post entitled “Section 230 is alive and well in California (for now) | Hassell v. Bird” which outlined the hotly contested, and widely watched, case that started back in 2014. When I wrote that post I left off saying that “the big question is where will things go from [there].” After all, we have seen, and continue to see, Section 230 come under attack for a host of arguably noble, yet not clearly thought through, reasons including sex-trafficking (resulting in FOSTA).

Many of us practitioners weren’t sure Hassell, after losing her case before the California Supreme Court as it pertained to Yelp, Inc., would actually appeal the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court. This was based upon the fact that: there has been a long line of cases across the country that have held that 47 U.S.C. § 230(c)(1) bars injunctive relief and other forms of liability against Internet publishers for third-party speech; that the U.S. Supreme Court denied another similar petition in not so distant past; and held many years prior, in Zenith Radio Corp. v. Hazeltine Research, Inc., 395 U.S. 100 (1969) that “[o]ne is not bound by a judgment in personam resulting from litigation in which he is not designated as a party or to which he has not been been made a party by service of process.”  

Clearly undeterred, in October of 2018 Hassell filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari and accompanying Appendix, challenging the California Supreme Court’s ruling, with the U.S. Supreme Court. Respondent, Yelp, Inc. filed its Opposition to the Petition for Writ of Certiorari in December of 2018. Hassell’s Reply in Support of the Petition was filed earlier this month and all the materials were distributed to the Justices to be discussed at the conference scheduled to be held on Friday, January 18, 2019. [I suppose it is good to see that the government shutdown didn’t kick this matter down the road.]

Many of us Section 230 advocates were waiting to see if the U.S. Supreme Court would surprise us by granting the Petition. Nevertheless, based upon today’s decision denying Hassell’s Petition it appears that this matter will, if ever, be reserved for another day and all is status quo with Section 230, for now.

Citations: Hassell v. Bird, 420 P.3d 776, 2018 WL 3213933 (Cal. Sup. Ct. July 2, 2018), cert. denied; Hassell v. Yelp, 2019 WL 271967 (U.S. Jan. 22, 2019)(No. 18- 506)

The Ugly Side of Reputation Management: What Attorneys and Judges Need to Know

Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was no such thing as the Internet.  Information and news came from your local newspaper, television, or radio channel.  Research was done in good old fashioned books, often at your local school, university or public library.  If the content you were seeking was “old” chances are you had to go look at microfiche. For those that are young enough to have no clue what I’m talking about, watch this video. Then BOOM! Along came the internet! Well, sort of.  It was a slow work in progress, but by 1995 the internet was fully commercialized here in the U.S.  Anyone else remember that horrible dial up sound followed by the coolest thing you ever heard in your life “You’ve got mail!“?

As technology and the internet evolved so did the ease of gathering and sharing information; not only by the traditional media, but by every day users of the internet.  I’ve dedicated an entire series of blogs called Fighting Fair on the Internet just to the topic of people’s online use.  Not every person who has access to the internet publishes flattering content (hello Free Speech) nor do they necessarily post truthful content (ewww, defamation).  Of course, not all unflattering content is defamatory, so it’s not illegal to be a crap talker, but some people try to overcome it anyway.  Either way, whether the information is true or false, such content has brought about a whole new industry for people and businesses looking for relief: reputation management.

Leave it to the entrepreneurial types to see a problem and find a lucrative solution to the same.  While there are always legitimate ethical reputation management companies and lawyers out there doing business the right way (and kudos to all of them)…there are those that are, shall we say, operating through more “questionable” means.  Those that want to push the ethical envelope often come up with “proprietary” methods to help clients which are often sold as removal or internet de-listing/de-indexing techniques that may include questionable defamation cases and court orders, use of bogus DMCA take down notices, or “black hat” methods.  In this article I am only going to focus on the questionable defamation cases that result in an order for injunctive relief.

BACKGROUND: QUESTIONABLE DEFAMATION CASES AND COURT ORDERS

UCLA Professor, Eugene Volokh and Public Citizen litigation attorney, Paul Alan Levy, started shedding public light on concerns relating to questionable court orders a few years ago.  In an amicus brief, submit to the California Supreme Court in support of Yelp, Inc. in Hassell v. BirdVolokh offered his findings to the court discussing how default proceedings are “far too vulnerable to manipulation to be trustworthy.”

As the brief says:

Injunctions aimed at removing or deindexing allegedly libelous material are a big practice area, and big business….But this process appears to be rife with fraud and with other behavior that renders it inaccurate. And this is unsurprising, precisely because many such injunctions are aimed at getting action from third parties (such as Yelp or Google) that did not appear in the original proceedings. The adversarial process usually offers some assurance of accurate fact finding, because the defendant has the opportunity and incentive to point out the plaintiff’s misstatements. But many of the injunctions in such cases are gotten through default judgments or stipulations, with no meaningful adversarial participation.

The brief further pointed to seven (7) different methods that plaintiffs were using to obtain default judgments:

(1) injunctions gotten in lawsuits brought against apparently fake defendants;

(2) injunctions gotten using fake notarizations;

(3) injunctions gotten in lawsuits brought against defendants who very likely did not author the supposedly defamatory material;

(4) injunctions that seek the deindexing of official and clearly nonlibelous government documents – with no notice to the documents’ authors – often listed in the middle of a long list of website addresses submitted to a judge as part of a default judgment;

(5) injunctions that seek the deindexing of otherwise apparently truthful mainstream articles from websites like CNN, based on defamatory comments that the plaintiffs or the plaintiffs’ agents may have posted themselves, precisely to have an excuse to deindex the article;

(6) injunctions that seek the deindexing of an entire mainstream media article based on the source’s supposedly recanting a quote, with no real determination of whether the source was lying earlier, when the article was written, or is lying now, prompted by the lawsuit;

(7) over 40 “injunctions” sent to online service providers that appear to be outright forgeries.

Well, isn’t that fun?  Months after the brief was filed in Hassell, Volokh published another article with the title “Solvera Group, accused by Texas AG of masterminding fake-defendant lawsuits, now being sued by Consumer Opinion over California lawsuits.”  What was clear from all of this is that website owners who have been victims of the scheme are likely watching and the authorities are too.  The US Attorney Generals office in the District of Rhode Island and the State of Texas both took interest in these situations…and I suppose it is possible that more will be uncovered as time goes on.

So how are these parties getting away with this stuff?  With the help of unscrupulous reputation management companies, associated defamation attorneys…and, unfortunately, trusting judges.  Some judges have taken steps to correct the problem once the issue was brought to their attention.  As for the attorneys involved, you have to wonder if they were actually “duped” as this Forbes article mentions or do they know what they are doing?  Either way, it’s not a good situation.  This isn’t to necessarily say that every attorney that is questioned about this stuff is necessarily guilty of perpetrating a fraud upon the court or anything like that.  However, it should serve as a cautionary warning that this stuff is real, these schemes are real, clients can be really convincing, and if one isn’t careful and fails to conduct appropriate and precautionary due diligence on a client and/or the documents provided to you by a client…it could easily be a slippery slope into Padora’s box.   After all, no one wants to be investigated by their state bar association (or worse) for being involved with this kind of mess.

Yes, there have been lots of great articles and discussion shedding light on the subject but the question then becomes, how do you tell the difference between a legitimate situation and a questionable situation?  The answer: recognize red flags and question everything.

RED FLAGS THAT SHOULD CAUSE YOU PAUSE

In December of 2016 I had the pleasure of traveling to Miami, FL for the Internet Lawyer Leadership Summit conference to present, for CLE, on multiple topics including this subject.  At that time I provided the group with some “red flags” based upon information I had then.  Since that time I have gained an even greater knowledge base on this subject simply by paying attention to industry issues and reading, a lot.  I have now compiled the following list of cautionary flags with some general examples, and practical advice that, at minimum, should have you asking a few more questions:

RED FLAGS FOR ATTORNEYS

  • If the entity or person feeding you the “lead” is in the reputation management industry.  You want to do some due diligence.  You could be dealing with a total above board individual or entity , and the lead may be 100% legit, BUT the industry seems to consist of multiple “companies” that often lead back to the same individual(s) and just because they are well known doesn’t necessarily mean they are operating above board.  Do your homework before you agree to be funneled any leads.
  • If the client is asking you to make some unusual adjustments to your fee agreement.  Your fee agreement is likely pretty static.  If the client is requesting some unusual adjustments to your agreement that make you feel uncomfortable, you might want to decline representation.
  • If the client already has “all of the documents” and you don’t actually deal with the defendant. We all want to trust our clients, but as some counsel already experienced, just accepting what your client tells you and/or provides you as gospel without a second thought can land you in hot water.  Consider asking to meet the defendant in person or have them appear before a person licensed to give an oath and check identification, such as a notary public of YOUR choosing to ensure the defendant is real and that the testimony that they are giving in the declaration or affidavit is real.  You want to make sure everything adds up and communication by telephone or email may not protect you enough.  When it comes to documents provided by the client, or the alleged post author, watch for the following:
    • Ensure that the address listed on any affidavit or other document isn’t completely bogus.  Run a search on Google – is it even a real address?  For all you know you could be getting an address to the local train track.
    • Ensure that any notary stamp on an affidavit is inconsistent with where the affiant purports to live. It will rarely make sense for an affiant list their address as, for example, Plains, New York but the notary stamp suggests the notary is based out of Sacramento, California. It will make even less sense if the affiant supposedly lives out of country, but is being notarized by a notary in the states.
    • Ensure that the notary is actually a real notary.  You can typically find record of notaries with the Secretary of State that the notary is in.  Make sure they are a real person.  If you really want to be sure that they actually signed your document, and that it wasn’t “lifted” from elsewhere (yay technology) check in with the notary and/or see if their records are on file somewhere publicly that you can check.
  • If the entity alleged to be the plaintiff isn’t actually a real entity in the state that they are purporting in the complaint to be from.  If the plaintiff is supposed to be ABC Ventures, LLC out of San Diego, California, there should be a record of ABC Ventures, LLC actually listed, and active, on the California Corporation Commission website.  The people that you are talking to also should, in theory, be the members/managers of such entity too.  For example, if you are always talking to a “secretary” you might want to insist on a more direct contact.
  • If the person or entity listed to be the plaintiff isn’t actually listed in the subject URL in the complaint.  If a plaintiff is going to bring a case, they should at least have standing to do so.  You should be cautious of any plaintiffs that aren’t actually at issue or fails to have a valid direct connection that would give them standing to bring the claim.
  • If the subject post doesn’t contain any defamatory statements in the first place.  Just because a post isn’t flattering doesn’t mean that it is actually defamatory.  Similarly, public documents aren’t typically seen as defamatory either. Who is saying it is false? Why is the statement false? What evidence supports the allegation that it is false?  
  • If the subject posting is outside of the statute of limitations for bringing claims in the state in which you intend on filing.  Now I know that some may disagree with me, and there may be bar opinions in different states that suggest otherwise, however, if you are presented with a post that is outside of the statute of limitations to bring a claim for defamation, subject to the single publication rule, and there is no real reason for tolling (like it was held in a secret document not generally public – which pretty much excludes the items on the internet) that may be of concern to you.  I wrote before on why statute of limitations is important, especially if you are the type to follow ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 3.1.  Even here in Arizona the bar has raised in disciplinary proceedings, in connection with other infractions, concerns about bringing claims outside of the statute of limitations, citing a violation of ER 8.4(d).  See generally, In re Aubuchon233 Ariz. 62 (Ariz. 2013).
  • If a case was filed in a wholly separate state from the Plaintiff and Defendant and you are asked to be “local counsel” to marshal documents to court or simply to submit it to a search engine like Google.  It is not improbable that local counsel will be called to assist with basic filings or to submit an order to Google.  It may be possible that such documents contain questionable materials.  It’s always a good idea to review the materials and give it a heightened level of scrutiny before just marshaling them off to the court or search engine.  This is especially true if the Plaintiff is no longer associated with prior counsel and is just looking for a different lawyer to help with this “one thing” as if a submission from an attorney bears more weight that anyone else submitting it.
  • If the plaintiff claims to already know who the author of a subject alleged defamatory post is, yet the post itself is anonymous.  Yes, it is possible that based on an author’s content, and how much detail is placed in such post, that one might be able to figure out who the author is. However, in my experience, many authors tend to write just vague enough to keep themselves anonymous.  If that is the case, without a subpoena to the content host, how does one actually know who the author is?  Some states like Arizona have specific notice requirements for subpoenas that are seeing identifying user information which require notice being posted in the same manner, through the same medium, in which the subject posting was made.  If a notice isn’t present on the website, there likely wasn’t a subpoena (assuming the website requires strict compliance with the law). Mobilisa, Inc. v. Doe, 170 P.3d 712, 217 Ariz. 103 (Ariz. App., 2007).
  • If the case was settled in RECORD TIME.  Often these matters are being “resolved” within a few weeks to only a couple months.  As most of us know, the wheels of justice are SLOW.
  • If the case is settled without any answers or discovery being done.  This goes to my prior point about knowing who the real author is, or, for that matter, that the allegations in a subject post are even false.
  • If notice about the case was not personally served by a process server.  Many states allow certified mailing for service.  Do you really know who is signing that little green form and accepting service?  Was some random person paid to sign that?

RED FLAGS FOR JUDGES (Consider all of the above generally plus the following)

  • If a Complaint is filed and shortly thereafter a stipulated judgment is presented requesting injunctive relief without the defendant ever actually making an appearance.  This seems to be one of the more popular tactics.  A way to curb this kind of abuse would be to hold a hearing where all parties must appear, in person (especially the named defendant signing the stipulation) before the court before any such injunctive order is signed and entered.
  • If an attorney files an affidavit of making a good faith attempt in order to locate the defendant but discovery was never conducted upon the hosting website.  Many sites will respond to discovery so long as their state laws for obtaining such information (like Arizona’s Mobilisa case) is followed.  Arguably, it is disingenuous for an attorney to say they have tried when they really haven’t.  Chances are, the real author may not even know about the case and entering a default judgment under such circumstances deprives them of the opportunity to appear and defend against the matter.
  •  If you order the parties to appear and then suddenly the case gets dismissed.  It thwarts the scheme when the court requests the parties to appear.  If this happens, in a defamation related case, it could be seen as a red flag.  The plaintiff may very well try to dismiss the action and simply refile under a different plaintiff and defendant name but for the same URL that was originally filed in the prior dismissed action.
  • If the order for injunctive relief contains URLs that were not originally part of the Complaint.  Sneaky plaintiffs and their counsel may attempt to include other postings, from the same or different websites, that are not really at issue and/or that were arguably written by other individuals.  Make sure that the URLs listed on the order are all the same as what is listed on the complaint.
  • If the complaint contains a host of posts, with wide range of dates, and the syntax of the posts are different yet the plaintiff claims that it was written by the same person.  In my experience, very rarely (though it does happen) will one person go on a binge and write a bunch of different posts about one person or entity.  There are typically more than one author involved so if any statement to the alternative should raise a red flag.

Some journalists that have been tracking these kinds of matters think that these schemes may be nearing an end.  I would like to think so, however, in my opinion these problems are far from over unless unsuspecting attorneys, judges, and even websites and search engines get a little more cautious about how they process these court orders for content removal, especially if they are older orders.  I have already discussed why I thought search engine de-indexing isn’t necessarily a viable reputation management solution and in part that is because, arguably, at least for now, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act  bars injunctive relief, i.e., there is no obligation for websites to remove content anyway.  If a platform or search engine decides to remove content or otherwise de-index content, at least here in the U.S., they are doing so based upon their own company policy…not some legal duty.

In a perfect world none of these issues would exist. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in and the best we can do is be vigilant. Hopefully, through this article, I have provided some food for thought for attorneys and judges alike. You never know when such a situation will arise.

All information contained in this blog (www.beebelawpllc.blog.com) is meant to be for general informational purposes only and should not be misconstrued as legal advice or relied upon.  All legal questions should be directed to a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction.

Legal fees: 7 ways that YOU may be contributing to a higher legal bill

No one loves legal fees and with the advent of the internet, and all of these “free” forms and information online that people now have access to, many lay people seem to think that paying for a lawyer’s time is overrated or that you could have obtained the same information elsewhere for a fraction of the cost. If you are starting with that mindset, you are setting yourself up to be frustrated with your lawyer and with the inevitable bill. If that is you, save yourself and your potential lawyer some aggravation…don’t engage an attorney. Take your chances with whatever you can find online, which may or may not be right for you and your situation, and run with it. No, really. It’s not with the frustration for either of you. No business, lawyers/law firms included, want to deal with a disgruntled client/customer that is going to nickel and dime them because they think they could have gotten a better deal elsewhere. There may always be someone “better qualified” or “cheaper” although the two don’t usually coincide with one another. The question then becomes, can you have a good working relationship with your lawyer? That’s what you really want.

If you do decide to move forward with an attorney, understand that there are things that YOU might do that can make your lawyer bill even more expensive:

1) Thinking that your situation is “simple” and being stuck in that mindset even when you are told that your situation isn’t “simple.” The matter may be simple to you, but that’s because you aren’t going to think of all the same things your lawyer is. Most matters are far more complex than what a client thinks it is. The more complex a matter is or the more complex the lawyer says it is, the higher the bill will likely be. Expect it.

2) Taking a free legal template document (which is SO basic it that it likely doesn’t actually cover what you need to accomplish your goals) and asking a lawyer to review it. Chances are, no lawyer is going to look at that and think that it is a legal masterpiece; but you are going to pay them to look at it anyway, and it’s likely going in the garbage. If that is where you are starting, you are better off asking the lawyer to draft and agreement or other legal document from scratch. At least then you aren’t paying for their time to read something that they likely won’t use in the first place.

3) Not being forthcoming with information to begin with. You have to remember that your attorney doesn’t know the matter or the parties like you do. It is up to you to help get your attorney up to speed on all the specifics and timely provide them with the information they request. You also have to remember that if your attorney’s job is to help protect you from some other party or risk, they are going to assume, and try to prepare for, the very worst. If you have a good lawyer, they are likely going to dig and ask questions to help them do that. Some questions you may not be comfortable answering but it is best to answer them anyway because if you don’t, and your attorney is suspicious of the situation, they will dig for themselves and you will be expected to pay for their digging.

4) Providing hasty inadequate answers to, or otherwise failing to actually address, your lawyer’s questions. If a lawyer doesn’t feel they are getting the whole story, a good one will dig for more information to find the answers to their questions and it will likely be done at your expense. It’s better to be forthcoming and provide as much information as is requested or possible (it’s better to over disclose than under disclose) and provide such information in a methodical and organized manner as you can. Don’t just dump a bunch of papers in a box and say “Here ya go!” Your lawyer will charge you the time it takes to organize all of the materials.

5) Providing incorrect answers to your lawyer’s questions. A good lawyer will trust the information they are given but will also verify the information provided. If your attorney finds even one answer wrong/inconsistent from prior statements given to them, they are not going to trust what you (or whoever) are telling them and will have to verify all of the information given to them. You should always back up your statements with the documents supporting your statements. The more time your lawyer has to spend verifying the accuracy of the information that has been provided, the bigger the bill.

6) Not heeding warnings and advice of your lawyer. A lawyer can never protect you from all risk, but they can tell you when there are major red flags and discuss ways to avoid it. Asking your lawyer to move forward, especially when you want to be cutting corners on recommended due diligence, increases the risk of the transaction or situation and also makes the attorneys job 10 times harder than it needs to be. This is because without the proper information they have to try to plan for, and anticipate, all of the unknowns. The longer and harder your lawyer has to think, especially where there are unknowns, the higher the bill is likely to be.

7) Being “needy.” Attorneys aren’t often called “counselors” for nothing. Many situations can be very emotional and often people want to rely on their attorney for emotional support, a safe ear, and a constant source of reassurance. It happens to the best of us! At the same time, if you are the type of person that desires a lot of interaction and attention from your attorney, you should plan on and be prepared for, a higher bill. Why? Well, you have to think that even though you are a valuable client, chances are, your lawyer has other clients and projects. If they are in the middle of a project, and you call or keep sending text messages or emails, that interrupts their train of thought and their attention is diverted to you. Your attorney has to reorient their brain to address your call, text or email and then, when they are done with your matter, they have to again reorient their brain back to whatever it was they were working on and try to figure out where they were. It can be much like working from home when you have a few small, and unattended, children. The time that they give you to vent, be it on the phone, text or via multiple emails, and the time it takes them to reorient themselves back to their prior project, may very well end up on your bill and you should expect it. Just assume a .1, at least, to be on your bill, for every communication you initiate. Your attorney may be kind and write off some time, but you shouldn’t expect it.  Think about it…would you go to work and then tell your boss to deduct money from your pay check even though you spent time on work projects for your boss?

Lawyers can be expensive but you can lessen the financial burden by giving a little more consideration to how you interact with your lawyer. The more work or hand-holding they have to do, the bigger your bill will likely be, regardless of how “simple” you think a task. Help them, help you.

All information contained in this blog (www.beebelawpllc.blog.com) is meant to be for general informational purposes only and should not be misconstrued as legal advice or relied upon.  All legal questions should be directed to a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction.

Section 230 is alive and well in California (for now) | Hassell v. Bird

Last week, on July 2, 2018 the Supreme Court of California overturned rulings that arguably threatened the ability for online platform users to share their thoughts and opinions freely by ruling in favor of Yelp in the hotly contested and widely watched Hassell v. Bird case.

For those that aren’t familiar with the underlying facts, I offer the following quick background:

In 2014 a dispute arose between California attorney, Dawn Hassell and her former client, Ava Bird when Bird posted a negative review of Hassell on the popular business review site, Yelp.  Hassell claimed that the content of the post was, among other things, defamatory and commenced an action against Bird for the same in the Superior Court of the County of San Francisco, Case No. CGC-13-530525. Bird failed to appear, and the Court entered a default order in favor of Hassell.  There is question as to whether Bird was actually served.  In addition, the court ordered Yelp, a non-party to the case who did not receive notice of the hearing, to remove reviews purportedly associated with Bird without explanation and enjoined Yelp from publishing any reviews from the suspected Bird accounts in the future.  Yelp challenged this order, but the court upheld its ruling.

Hoping for relief, Yelp appealed the decision to the California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, Division Four, Case No. A143233. Unfortunately for Yelp, the Appellate Court offered no relief and held that: Yelp was not aggrieved by the judgment; the default judgment which including language requesting non-party Yelp to remove the reviews from the website was proper; that Yelp had no constitutional right to notice and hearing on the trial court’s order to remove the reviews from the website; that the order to remove the reviews from Yelp and to prohibit publication of future reviews was not an improper or overly broad prior restraint; and that the Communications Decency Act (“CDA” or “Section 230”) did not bar the trial court’s order to remove the reviews.

The Appellate Court’s ruling was clearly contrary to precedent in California and elsewhere around the country. Yelp appealed the matter to the California Supreme Court, Case No. S235968, to “protect its First Amendment right as a publisher, due process right to a hearing in connection with any order that targets speech on Yelp’s website, and to preserve the integrity of the CDA” according to the blog post written by Aaron Schur, Yelp’s Deputy General Counsel. While Yelp led the charge, they were not left to fight alone.

The internet rallied in support of Yelp.  Dozens of search engines, platforms, non-profit organizations and individuals who value the free sharing of information and ideas contributed amicus letters and amicus briefs (I co-authored an amicus brief for this case) in support of Yelp, including assistance from those like UCLA Law Professor and Washington Post contributor Eugene Volokh and Public Citizen Litigator, Paul Alan Levy, whose work spotlighted the ease in which bogus court orders and default judgments are obtained for the sole purpose of getting search engines like Google to de-index content.  In case you are wondering, bogus court orders and false DMCA schemes are indeed a real problem that many online publishers face.

On April 3, 2018 the California Supreme Court heard oral argument on the case. On July 2, 2018 the Supreme Court released its 102 page opinion in a 3-1-3 decision (three on a plurality opinion, one swing concurring, and three dissenting via two opinions) holding that Hassell’s failure to name Yelp as a defendant, an end run-around tactic, did not preclude the application of CDA immunity.  The court clearly stated “we must decide whether plaintiffs’ litigation strategy allows them to accomplish indirectly what Congress has clearly forbidden them to achieve directly.  We believe the answer is no.” Based upon this win for the Internet, at least for now, online publishers in California (or those who have had this case thrown at them in demand letters or pleadings since the original trial and appellate court rulings) can breathe a sigh of relief that they cannot be forced to remove third-party content.

Aaron Shur made an important statement in concluding the Yelp blog post “…litigation is never a good substitute for customer service and responsiveness, and had the law firm avoided the courtroom and moved on, it would have saved time and money, and been able to focus more on the cases that truly matter the most – those of its clients.”  It’s important in both our professional and personal life to not get stuck staring at one tree when there is a whole forest of beauty around us.

While this is indeed a win, and returns the law back to status quo in California, it does raise some concern for some that certain comments in the opinion are signaling Congress to modify Section 230, again (referring to the recent enactment of FOSTA).  Santa Clara Law Professor, Eric Goldman broke down the Court’s lengthy opinion (a good read if you don’t want to spend the time to review the full opinion) while pointing out that “fractured opinions raise some doubts about the true holding of [the] case.”  The big question is where will things go from here?  Indeed, only time will tell.

Citation: Hassell v. Bird, 2018 WL 3213933 (Cal. Sup. Ct. July 2, 2018)

What does your workload and Thanksgiving have in common?

Working diligent and effectively at all things in life is good. At the same time, when you are diligent and effective, others can see that as an opportunity to pile you up with more tasks and that can be a slippery slope. Saying “no” (realistically) early and often when you start getting overwhelmed is important for your well being and helps set boundaries with those lovely little “task delegators.”

Think of your workload like food. You can pile a mound of food on your plate like it’s a Thanksgiving feast, and you want to be sure and take a little bit of everything so not to offend anyone who contributed to the meal, but the reality is, your stomach is only so big and you can only eat so much at a time, right?  Even if you gorge yourself to the point of not being able to move…you become sluggish and tired and likely feel like crap.  Am I right?  Hey, we’ve all been there!  And what would happen if you continued such a “Thanksgiving feast” heavy eating pattern on a daily basis?  Never saying no to the food?  You’d likely grow to an unhealthy weight and be perpetually sluggish and tired – along with the development of other ailments like sleeplessness. Similarly, it’s important to remember that your plate is only so big.  If you pile the plate high enough, eventually food falls off the plate, onto the floor, and likely ends up in the trash, right?  So how do we normally manage a full plate of food?  Well, you take a little bit – eat it all – and if you’re still hungry, you go back for seconds, right?

Your workload, in the office or in life, is no different. You can’t live every day like it’s Thanksgiving and you can’t say no to great grandma Jean’s corn pudding or aunt Suzie’s pumpkin cheesecake.  It will literally make you less effective and likely sick – in more ways than one.  When people are trying to delegate more than what you can reasonably handle, recognize this!  Say “no” (and mean it) early and often to protect your health and sanity.

Until next time friends…

Data Privacy: Do most people even deserve it?

Repeat after me: Everything connected online is hackable.  Nothing online is really ever totally private. Most everything about my online activity is likely being aggregated and sold.  This is especially true if the website is free for me to use. 

Okay, before we get going, realize that this article is not discussing things that we would like to think is relatively safe and secure…like banking and health records.  Even then, please repeat the statements above because even for those situations it still holds true.  What I’m going to talk about is the more run of the mill websites and platforms that everyone uses.

The truth of the matter is, most people never read a website’s terms of service or privacy policy and readily click the “I agree” or “I accept” button without knowing if they have just agreed to give away their first born or shave their cat.  Or, to be more realistic, that a free to use website which you don’t have to spend a penny to use is likely to track your behavior so they can render you ads of products and services that you might be interested in and/or sell aggregated data and/or your email address to marketers or other businesses that might be interested in you as a customer or to learn more about consumer habits in general.  Hello people…NOTHING IS FREE!  Indeed, most humans are lazy as sh*t when it comes to all of that reading and so forth because really, who in the hell wants to read all that?  Hey, I’m guilty of it myself,  although since I write terms of service and privacy policies as a way to make a living sometimes I will read them for pure entertainment.  Don’t judge me…I’m a nerd like that.

We are quick to use, click or sign up on a website without knowing what it is that we are actually agreeing to or signing up for…because we want entertainment and/or convenience…and we want it NOW.  Talk about an instant gratification society right? Think about the following situations as an example: Go to the grocery store and buy ingredients then take another 35-40 minutes to make dinner or simply use an app to order pizza? Send someone a handwritten letter through the mail (snail mail) or shoot them an email? Sit down and write checks or schedule everything through bill-pay? Pick up a landline phone (they do still exist) and call someone or send them a text from your mobile device?  Go to the local box office and purchase tickets to your favorite concert or buy them online? Stand in line at the theater for tickets or pre-pay on an app ahead of time and walk right in using a scan code through that app? Remember and type in your password all the time or ask your computer or use your thumb print to remember it all?  Take pictures with a camera that has film, get it developed and send those images to family and friends or take pictures with your phone and instantly upload them to a social media platform like Facebook to share with those same people, for free? By now you should be getting my point…and that is that we want convenience, and technology has been great at providing that, but for that convenience we often forget the price that is associated with it, including a loss of data privacy and security.

Low and behold, and not surprisingly (to me anyway), something like the Facebook – Cambridge Analytica situation happens and Every. Damn. Person. Loses. Their. Mind!  Why? Well, because mainstream media makes it into a bigger story than it is…and suddenly everyone is “conveniently” all concerned about their “data privacy.”  So let me get this straight: You sign up for a FREE TO USE platform, literally spend most of your free time on said platform pretty much posting everything about yourself including who your relatives are, what you like and don’t like, the last meal you ate, your dirty laundry with a significant other, spend time trolling and getting into disputes on bullsh*t political post (that are often public posts where anyone can see them), check in at every place you possibly go, upload pictures of yourself and your family…all of this willingly (no one is holding a gun to your head) and you are surprised that they sell or otherwise use that data?  How do you think they are able to offer you all these cool options and services exactly? How do you think they are able to keep their platform up and running and FREE for you to use?  At what point does one have to accept responsibility for the repercussions from using a website, signing up or clicking that “I agree” button?  Damn near ever website has a terms of service and privacy policy (if they don’t steer clear of them or send them my way for some help) and you SHOULD be reading it and understand it…or at least don’t b*tch when you end up getting advertisements as per the terms of service and privacy policy (that you didn’t bother to read)…or any other possible option that could be out there where someone might use your information for – including the possibility that it will be used for nefarious purposes.

I’m not saying that general websites/platforms that house such content shouldn’t have reasonable security measures in place and that terms of service and privacy policies shouldn’t be clear (though its getting harder and harder to write for the least common denominator).  But again, nothing is 100% secure – there will always be someone that will find away to hack a system if they really want to and it’s really your fault if you fail to read and understand a website or platforms terms of service and privacy policy before you use it or sign up for something.  Why should people scream and cry for the “head” of a platform or website when people freely give their data away?  That’s like blaming the car dealership for theft when you take your fancy new car to a ghetto ass neighborhood, known for high crime and car theft, leave it parked on a dark street, unlocked and with the keys in it.  “But they should have watned me it would get stolen!” Wait! What?Okay, maybe that’s a little too far of an exaggeration but seriously, the internet is a blessing and a curse.  If you don’t know of the potential dangers, and you don’t take the time to learn them, perhaps you shouldn’t be on it?  Remember, entertainment and convenience is the reward for our sacrifice of data privacy and security.

You know who has a heightened level of privacy, doesn’t have social media accounts hacked, data isn’t mined from online habits and doesn’t get spammed to death?  My dad.  Why? He doesn’t get on computers let alone get online and he doesn’t even own a smart phone.  True story.  The dude still has checks, writes hand written notes, and hunts for his meat and gardens for his vegetables. Can you say “off the grid”?  Want heightened data privacy?  Be like dad.

Repeat after me: Everything connected online is hackable.  Nothing online is really ever totally private. Most everything about my online activity is likely being aggregated and sold and sold.  This is especially true if the website is free for me to use.

All information contained in this blog (www.beebelawpllc.blog.com) is meant to be for general informational purposes only and should not be misconstrued as legal advice or relied upon.  All legal questions should be directed to a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction. 

 

 

Arizona Defamation Law

Now that nearly anyone can get online and “speek freely” it is no wonder that there is a rise in defmation related claims.  If only people would have read the Fighting Fair on the Internet series sooner?  Indeed, so many people are either “That Guy” or are on the receiving end of “That Guy.”  Hey, I’m not judging, I’m just telling it as I see it.

As adults that may not have grown up with the internet, many of us were thrust into online situations that, quite frankly, we weren’t equipped to handled.  And now, kids are even getting the short end of the lesson learning stick because of it.

So let’s talk about defamation.  Of course, it’s important to point out that laws vary from state to state and if you are not in Arizona, the following information may not apply to you.

ARIZONA DEFAMATION LAW – THE BASICS

The Elements of Defamation in Arizona.

In Arizona, as outlined in Morris v. Warner, 106 Ariz. 55, 62 (Ariz.Ct.App. 1988), the elements of a defamation claim are:

  1. a false statment concerning the plaintiff;
  2. the statement was defamatory;
  3. the statement was published to a third party;
  4. the requisite fault on the part of the defendant; and
  5. the plaintiff was damaged as a result of the statement.

In order for a statement to be considered “defamatory” the statement made must be false and bring the alleged defamed person into disrepute, contempt, or ridicule, or impeach his/her honesty, integrity, virtue, or reputation.  That is outlined in a case called Godbehere v. Phoenix Newspapers, Inc., 162 Ariz.335, 341 (Ariz. 1989).

Spoken “defamation” is called slander.   Think of rumor telling in the locker room, or maybe even bigger, like saying something on live public television.

Written “defamation” is called libel.  Given the popularity of the internet now, this is what we see happening more often.  Think of postings you see people post online.  Those arguments that get heated and people start making up false statements…yeah, that could be libel.

Distinguishing between defamation per se and defamation per quod.

Distinctions between defamation per se and defamation per quod in Arizona is important because it effects the type of damages that the plaintiff must allege in order to prevail on their claim.

  • Slander per se is a statement that does any of the following:
    • Imputes the commission of a crime involving moral turpitude (meaning an act or behavior that gravely violates the sentiment or accepted standard of the community.); or
      • Examples of this are false accusations that some has commit rape, forgery, robbery, and solicitation by prostitutes.
    • Tends to injure a person in his profession, trade, or business; or
      • For example, falsely telling someone that a business took your money without providing the service promissed.
    • States that someone has a contageous or vanerial disease, or that a woman is not chaste (meaning that she is not pure from unlawful sexual conduct).
      • For example, falsely saying that someone one has AIDs.
  • Slander per quod is basically a slanderous statement that does not otherwise fit under the definition of slander per se.
  • Libel per se is a statement written which “on their face and without the aid of any extrinsic matter” tend to “bring any person into disprpute, contempt or ridicule” or “impeach the honestly, integrity, virtue or reputation.”
  • Libel per quod is bascially a written statement that on its face doesn’t fall within the definition of defamation BUT by which special circumstances actually make it fall within that definition.

Statute of Limitations for Defamation in Arizona

As I discussed in a prior article, it is important that people understand Statute of Limitations.  They are there for a reason and, in my view, counsel that file claims that are barred by the statute of limitation are doing nothing more than wasting client resources and, arguably, committing an ethical violation.

The statute of limitations for defamation in Arizona is one (1) year.  A.R.S. § 12-541(1).  There may be, in some very limited circumstances, an argument to be made that there should be a tolling of the statute of limitations in situations where the information would have been concealed from the plaintiff (like in a confidential memo) in which case the statute of limitations may run fron the date of “discovery.”

Another important fact to know is that Arizona, by state statute, applies what is referred to as the “single publication rule” or, more specifically, the “Uniform Single Publication Act.”  A.R.S. § 12-651.  The important langugage of the statute states as follows:

A. No person shall have more than one cause of action for damages for libel, slander, invasion of privacy or any other tort founded upon a single publication, exhibition or utterance, such as any one edition of a newspaper, book or magazine, any one presentation to an audience, any one broadcast over radio or television or any one exhibition of a motion picture. Recovery in any action shall include all damages for any such tort suffered by the plaintiff in all jurisdictions.

B. A judgment in any jurisdiction for or against the plaintiff upon the substantive merits of any action for damages founded upon a single publication, exhibition or utterance as described in subsection A shall bar any other action for damages by the same plaintiff against the same defendant founded upon the same publication, exhibition or utterance.

The single publication rule applies to content posted to the internet and under the “single publication rule,” a cause of action for defamation arises at the time the statement is first published; later circulation of the original publication does not start the statute of limitations anew, nor does it give rise to a new cause of action.  Larue v. Brown, 235 Ariz. 440, 333 P.3d 767 (2014)

All information contained in this blog (www.beebelawpllc.blog.com) is meant to be for general informational purposes only and should not be misconstrued as legal advice or relied upon.  All legal questions should be directed to a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction. 

Domesticating a Foreign Subpoena in Arizona

So you have initiated legal action in your local state court but an entity or person that you need information from is based out of or otherwise located in the state of Arizona.  What do you do?  Well, if you want someone to tell you how to do it (yep, step by step instructions) or otherwise don’t really want to mess with it much at all, you can seek help from Beebe Law, PLLC.  Simply start by filling out the Arizona State Subpoena Domestication Intake Form.  If you just want to learn a little more…keep reading.

Every state has their own unique set of laws and procedures when it comes to domesticating a foreign subpoena and Arizona is no exception.  The following are a few important points:

  1. Make sure you know who the entity’s statutory agent is and where they are located.  You should be able to find this by searching the Arizona Corporation Commission’s website.
  2. Ensure that you are complying with Arizona’s Interstate Depositions and Discovery rules.
  3. If you are asking for medical records or anonymous author information, there are special rules/laws surrounding that you will need to research.
  4. If you are commanding attendance at a deposition or hearing be sure you are doing it at a location consistent with the rules.
  5. Don’t forget your witness fees!
  6. You will have to arrange to have the subpoena served, e.g. through a process server.

Many can absolutely accomplish the goal of foreign subpoena domestication in Arizona entirely on their own (as long as you pay close attention to the rules) however, if you are unsure of the process, or otherwise just don’t want the hassle of it, feel free to reach out to us.  We are here to help you navigate and/or take over the nuances and have created an entire Foreign State Subpoena Domestication Intake Form to get you started.

If you are in need of assistance with laws and procedure in the state of Arizona and are looking for that solid “friend in the lawyering business” consider Beebe Law, PLLC!  We truly enjoy helping our  business and individual clients meet and exceed their goals!  Contact us today.

All information contained in this blog (www.beebelawpllc.blog.com) is meant to be for general informational purposes only and should not be misconstrued as legal advice or relied upon.  All legal questions should be directed to a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction.