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)

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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.

“Internet Law” explained

For some reason, every time one says “lawyer” people tend to think of criminal law, family law or personal injury law.  Perhaps because those are very common.  Most people even understand the concept of a corporate or business lawyer, someone who handles trust and estates, or even one that handles intellectual property.  However, when we say “Internet Law” many people get the most confused look on their face and say: “What the heck is that?” If that is you, you’re in good company.  And, to be fair, the Internet really hasn’t been around all that long.

If you were to read the “IT law” page on Wikipedia you’d see a section related to “Internet Law” but even that page falls a little short on a solid explanation – mostly because the law that surrounds the Internet is incredibly vast and is always evolving.

When we refer to “Internet Law” we are really talking about how varying legal principles and surrounding legislation influence and govern the internet, and it’s use.  For example, “Internet Law” can incorporate many different areas of law such as privacy law, contract law and intellectual property law…all which were developed before the internet was even a thing.  You also have to think how the Internet is global and how laws and application of those laws can vary by jurisdiction.

Internet Law can include the following:

  • Laws relating to website design
  • Laws relating to online speech and censorship of the same
  • Laws relating to how trademarks are used online
  • Laws relating to what rights a copyright holder may have when their images or other content is placed and used online
  • Laws relating to Internet Service Providers and what liabilities they may have based upon data they process or store or what their users do on their platforms
  • Laws relating to resolving conflicts over domain names
  • Laws relating to advertisements on websites, through apps, and through email
  • Laws relating to how goods and services are sold online

As you can see just from the few examples listed above, a lot goes into “Internet Law” and many Internet Law attorneys will pick only a few of these areas to focus on because it can be a challenge just to keep up.  Indeed, unlike other areas of law, “Internet Law” is not static and is always evolving.

Do you think you have an Internet Law related question? If you are 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 and strive to 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.

 

 

 

 

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)

Fighting Fair on the Internet – Part 10 | That Would be Harsher Punishment for Internet Defamers Stan…

For many reasons the movie Ms. Congeniality with Sandra Bullock has been a long time favorite of mine.   Especially when she answered the question “What is one of the most important thing our society needs?” with “That would be harsher punishment for parole violators Stan…and world peace!”  I’m pretty sure since that movie first came out in 2000 I have been remixing that one-liner to fit my varying smarty pants comeback needs.  In fact, in muddling to myself just this morning after reviewing some dyspeptic online commentary I determined that I would answer the question “That would be harsher punishment for internet defamers Stan…and world peace!”  It’s true…internet defamers and harassers really do suck.

In my line of work, and in my every day life, I see people being nasty to one another online – and sometimes people really cross the line and forget that words do hurt.  Sometimes I wonder what happened to the good old fashioned “take it out behind the barn and duke it out…looser buys the other guy a drink” form of justice.  Back in the day (and I really hate saying that because I am not THAT old) if anyone ran their mouth in person like they do today online – man, they’d get a beat down and, quite honestly, they would have probably deserved it.  To make matters worse, you get the morons that jump on the keyboard warrior band wagon without having the first clue about what is REALLY going on and they either share the crap out of the false stuff or otherwise join in on the bashing.  When is enough, enough?  What the hell happened to the human connection and manners?  So much of society needs a good metaphorical kick in the teeth.  The First Amendment doesn’t shelter you from false and defamatory statements nor should it be abused as a license to be a jerk-face.  Unfortunately, unlike the “old days,”  it no longer hurts to be stupid and run your mouth.

Indeed I am a Section 230 Communications Decency Act (“CDA”) supporter, because I don’t think that websites should be held liable for the stupid crap that other people do; after all, that mentality is akin to an over weight person blaming the spoon manufacturer for making a spoon that they can use to eat and get fat with.  “…but, but, the spoon made me fat!”  And to those who just read that and got all defensive – clearly my reference isn’t to those who have medical issues or things outside of their control.  I’m talking about the person who is heavy because of purposeful overeating, failing to do exercises, etc.  Sometimes life happens.  We get busy and fail to take care of ourselves as we should but we can’t blame the spoon manufacturer for it.  The spoon didn’t make us fat.  We have no one to blame but ourselves.  This is absolutely no different and trying to hold websites liable for the stupidity of third-parties is asinine to me.  Yes, yes, I am well aware that the CDA protects websites from liability from third-party content, however, it doesn’t seem to stop people and attorneys from filing frivolous lawsuits…but I digress here.  That is another story for another day.  However, I do think that there should be some serious punishment for all these people who purposefully go out of their way to post false and defamatory information about others…the same goes for harassers.  Perhaps if these people got hit harder in the pocket book or were forced into doing community service – like helping with anti-bullying and harassment initiatives, maybe THEN it would slow down. There just needs to be more education and more deterrents.  It’s far too easy to sit behind the keyboard and be mean.  MEAN. PEOPLE. SUCK.

Until next time friends…

 

 

 

Fighting Fair on the Internet – Part 9 |Troubles with Defamatory Online Reviews and Content Scrapers

Content scrapers are problematic for authors, defamation plaintiffs and website operators alike.

There is no doubt that there is typically a clash of interests between authors, defamation plaintiffs and the operators of websites who host public third-party content.  Authors either want the information to stay or be removed; defamation plaintiffs want information removed from the website(s); and website operators, such as many of the online review websites, fight for the freedom of speech and transparency – often arguing, among many other things, that the information is in a public court record anyway so removal is moot.  These kinds of arguments, often surrounding the application of federal law know as the Communications Decency Act, or Section 230 (which arguable provides that websites don’t have to remove content even if it is false and defamatory) are playing out in courts right now.  One example is the case of Hassell v. Bird which is up on appeal before the California Supreme Court relating to a posting on Yelp.  However, in spite of these clashes of interests, there does seem to be a trend emerging where the author, the plaintiffs, and the websites, are actually standing in the same boat facing the the same troublemaker.

Providing some background and context…

COPYRIGHT AND POSTING AN ONLINE REVIEW:  Many people are familiar with the term “copyright” and have a basic understanding that a copyright is a legal right that is created by the law that gives the creator of an original work limited exclusive rights for its use and distribution.  Wikipedia has some decent general information if you are interested in learning more.  For example, a guy who I will call John for the purpose of this story, can get on a computer and draft up a complaint about Jane and her company XYZ  before he posts it online on a review website.  As it sits on John’s computer as written, John would own the copyright to that information.  When John decides to post it online to a review website, depending on the website’s terms of service John may have assigned his copyright rights to the website in which he was posting on.  So either John or the website may own the copyright to that content.  That point is important for a few reasons, and there are arguments for and against such an assignment, but those issues are for another article some other time.

DEFAMATORY POSTING IS PUBLISHED ONLINE:  Continuing with the story, let’s say that John makes a bad call in judgment (because he hasn’t sat through one of my seminars relating to internet use and repercussions from the same, or hasn’t read my article on not being THAT guy, and doesn’t realize how bad doing this really is) and decides to post his false and defamatory posting about Jane and XYZ to an online review website.  It’s totally NOT COOL that he did that but let’s say that he did.  Now that posting is online, being indexed by search engines like Google, and anyone searching for Jane or XYZ might be seeing John’s posting.

WHAT TO DO WITH THE DEFAMATORY POSTINGS:  The internet tends to work at lightening speed and John’s post is sure to be caught on to by Jane or by someone who knows Jane or her company XYZ.  As an aside, I always recommend that people and businesses periodically, like once a month, run searches about themselves or businesses just to see what pops up.  It’s just a good habit to get into because if there is a problem you will want to address it right away – especially you think it is false and defamatory and want to take legal action because there are pretty strict statue of limitations on those – in many states only providing one year from the date of publication.  When Jane learns of the posting, maybe she knows who John is by what was said in the posting – and maybe she isn’t sure who posted it – but either way chances are she is likely going to seek legal help to learn more about her options.  Many people in Jane’s position will want to threaten to sue the website…but it’s actually not that simple.  Why?  Because unless the website actually contributed to writing the stuff, which they most likely didn’t, then they can’t be held liable for that content.  That’s the law here in the United States – the Communications Decency Act.  Fortunately, while online defamation is a niche area of law, there are many attorneys who are well versed in online defamation around the country that are able to assist people who find themselves in this kind of a situation.

So by now you are probably wondering how in the world a defamed party and a website could both be standing in the same boat.  I promise I am getting there but I felt the need to walk through this story for the benefit of those who don’t work in this field and have little to no clue what I am even talking about.  Baby steps…I’m getting there.

A FIGHT FOR REMOVAL:  As I pointed out in the beginning, arguably under the law, websites don’t have to remove the content even if it is found by a court or otherwise to be false and defamatory and that leaves plaintiffs in an awkward position.  They want the information taken down from the internet because it’s alleged to be harmful.  What can be done all depends on the website the content is on.

REPUTATION MANAGEMENT:  Many people think that reputation management is the way to go.  However, while reputation management can be helpful in some instances, and I’m not trying to knock those legitimate companies out there that can definitely help a company with increasing their advertising and image online, many find it only to be a temporary band-aid when trying to cover up negativity.  Similarly, in some cases, some reputation management companies may employ questionable tactics such as bogus DMCAs or fake Court Orders.  Yes, those situations are real – I actually just presented on that topic to a group of internet lawyers less than two months ago and I caution anyone who is using or considering a reputation management company that guarantees removal of content from the internet.

A WEBSITE’S INTERNAL POLICING:  The same law that protects websites from liability for third-party content is the same law that encourages self policing by providing for editorial discretion on what to post and not post.  As such, some websites have taken their own proactive approach  and created their own internal policing system where, depending on the circumstances and what was written, the website might find that the posting violated their terms of service and, within their discretion, take some sort of action to help a victim out.  Not every website has this but it’s certainly worth checking into.

COURT ORDERS:  Remember, a website, arguably per the law, doesn’t necessarily have to take a posting down regardless of what the court order says.  Shocking, but this has been found to be true in many cases around the country.  So what do websites do?  Here are a few scenarios on how websites might consider a court order:

  • Some websites will, without question, accept a court order regardless of jurisdiction and remove content – even if it is by default which can mean that the defendant didn’t appear and defend the case.  It’s worth while to note that some people won’t appear and defend because: 1) they never got notice of the lawsuit in the first place; 2) they didn’t have the knowledge to fight the case themselves; and 3) they didn’t have the resources to hire an attorney to fight the case – let’s face it – good lawyers are expensive!  Even cheap lawyers are still expensive.
  • Some websites will remove a posting only if there is some sort of evidence that supported the court order – like the defendant appeared and agreed to remove or even if there is a simple affidavit by the author who agrees that the information is false and is willing to remove it.
  • Some websites will only redact the specific content that has been found to be false and defamatory by the court based on evidence.  This means that whatever opinions or other speech that would be protected under the law, such as the truth, would remain posted on the website.
  • And still, other websites won’t event bother with a court order because they are out of the country and/or just don’t give a crap.  These types of websites are rumored to try and get people to pay money in order for something to be taken down.

COURT ORDER WHACK-A-MOLE WITH SEARCH ENGINES LIKE GOOGLE:  One of the biggest trends is to get a court order for removal and send it in to search engines like Google for de-indexing.  What de-indexing does is it removes the specific URL in question from the search engine’s index in that particular country.  I make this jurisdictional statement because countries in the European Union have a “Right to be Forgotten” law and search engines like Google are required to remove content from searches stemming from Europe but, that is not the law in the US.  The laws are different in other countries and arguably, Google doesn’t have to remove anything from their searches in the US.  Going back to our story with John, Jane and company XYZ, if Jane manages to litigate the matter and get a court order for the removal of the URL to the posting from search engine index, then, in theory, Jane’s name or company wouldn’t be associated with the posting.

Now this all sounds GREAT, and it seems to be one of the better solutions employed by many attorneys on behalf of their clients, BUT there are even a few problems with this method and it becomes a game of legal whack-a-mole:

  1. A website could change the URL which would toss it back into the search engine’s index and make it searchable again.  The party would either have to get a new court order or, at least, submit the court order again to the search engine with the new court order.
  2. If sending the Court Order to Google, Google will typically post a notice to their search results that a search result was removed pursuant to a court order and give a link to the Lumen Database where people can see specifically what URLs were removed from their index and any supporting documentation.  This typically includes the court order which may, or may not, include information relating to the offending content, etc.  Anyone can then seek out the court case information and, in many cases, even pull the subject Complaint from online and learn exactly what the subject report said and learn whether or not the case was heard on the merits or if the case was entered by default or some other court related process.  Arguably, the information really isn’t gone fore those who are willing to do their homework.
  3. The first amendment and many state privilege laws allow the press, bloggers, etc. to make a story out of a particular situation so long as they quote exactly from a court record.  No doubt a court record relating to defamation will contain the exact defamatory statements that were posted on the internet.  So, for example, any blogger or journalist living in a jurisdiction that recognizes the privilege law, without condition on defamation, could write a story about the situation, post the exact content verbatim out of the court record as part of their story, and publish that story online, inclusive of the defamatory content, without liability.

The up-hill battle made WORSE by content scrapers.

With all that I have said above, which is really just a 10,000 foot view of the underlying jungle, poor Jane in my example has one heck of an up-hill battle regarding the defamatory content.  Further, in my example, John only posted on one review website.   Now enter the content scrapers who REALLY muck up the system causing headache for authors, for defamation plaintiffs, and for website providers like review websites.

CONTENT SCRAPERS:  When I say “content scrapers,” for the purpose of this blog article, I am referring to all of these new “review websites” that are popping up all over who, to get their start, appear to be systematically scraping (stealing) the content of other review websites that have been around for a long time and putting it on their own websites.  Why would anyone do this you ask?  Well, I don’t know exactly but I could surmise that it: 1) content helps their rankings online which helps generate traffic to their websites; 2) traffic to a website helps bring in advertising dollars to the ads that are running on their websites; and 3) if they are out of country (which many appear to be outside of the United States) they don’t really give a crap and can solicit money for people who write and ask for content to be taken down.  I sometimes refer to these websites as copycat websites.

CONTENT SCRAPERS CAUSE HEADACHES FOR AUTHORS:  Many people have their favorite review website that they turn to to seek out information on – be it Yelp for reviews on a new restaurant they want to try, TripAdvisor for people’s experience with a particular hotel or resort, or any other online review websites…it’s a brand loyalty if you will.  An author has the right to choose which website they are willing to post their content on and, arguably, that decision could be based in part on the particular website’s Terms of Service as it would relate to their content.  For example, some websites will allow you to edit and/or remove content that you post while other websites will not allow you to remove or edit content once it is posted.  I’d like to think that many people look  to see how much flexibility is provided with respect to their content before they chose which forum to post it on.

When a copycat website scrapes/steals content from another review website they are taking away the author’s right to choose where their content is placed.  Along the same lines, the copycat websites may not provide an author with the same level of control over their content.  Going back to my John, Jane and XYZ example, if John posted his complaint about Jane on a website that allowed him to remove it at his discretion, it’s entirely possible that a pre-litigation settlement could be reached where John voluntarily agreed to remove his posting or, John decided to do so on his own accord after he cooled down and realized he made a big mistake posting the false and defamatory posting about Jane online.  However, once a copycat website steals that content and places it on their website, John not only has to argue over whether or not he posted the content on another website but also may not be able to enter into a pre-litigation settlement or remove it at his own direction.  In fact, there is a chance that the copycat website will demand money in order to take it down – and then, who knows how long it will even stay down.  After all the copycat website doesn’t care about the law because stealing content is arguably copyright infringement.

CONTENT SCRAPERS CAUSE HEADACHE FOR DEFAMATION PLAINTIFFS:  As discussed within this article, defamation plaintiffs have an up-hill battle when it comes to pursuing defamation claims and trying to get content removed from the internet.  It almost seems like a losing battle but that appears to be the price paid for keeping the freedom of speech alive and keeping a level of transparency.  Indeed, there is value to not stifling free speech.  However, when people abuse their freedom of speech and cross the line online, such as John in my example, it makes life difficult for plaintiffs.  It’s bad enough when people like John post it on one website, but when a copycat website then steal content from other review websites, and post it to their website(s), the plaintiff now has to fight the battle on multiple grounds.  Just when a plaintiff will make headway with the original review website the stolen content will show up on another website.  And, depending on the copycat website’s own Terms of Service, there is a chance that it won’t come down at all and/or the copycat website will demand money to have the content, that they stole, taken down.  Talk about frustrating!

CONTENT SCRAPERS CAUSE HEADACHE FOR REVIEW WEBSITES:  When it comes to online review sites, it’s tough to be the middle man…and by middle man I mean the operator of the review website.  The raging a-holes of the world get pissed off when you don’t allow something “over the top” to be posted on their website and threaten to sue – arguing you are infringing on their first amendment rights.  The alleged defamation victims of the world get pissed off when you do allow something to get posted and threaten to sue because well – they claim they have been defamed and they want justice.  The website operator gets stuck in the middle having zero clue who anyone is and is somehow supposed to play judge and jury to thousands of postings a month?  Not that I’m trying to write myself out of a job but some of this stuff gets REALLY ridiculous and some counsel are as loony as their clients.  Sad but true.  And, if dealing with these kinds of issues wasn’t enough, enter the exacerbators, i.e, the copycat websites.

To begin with, website operators that have been around for a long time have earned their rankings.  They have had to spend time on marketing and interacting with users and customers in order to get where they are – especially those that have become popular online.  Like any business, a successful one takes hard work.  Copycat websites, who steal content, are just taking a shortcut to the top while stepping on everyone else.  They get the search engine ranking, they get the advertising dollars, and they didn’t have to do anything for it.  To top it off, while the algorithms change so often and I am no search engine optimization (SEO) expert, I suspect that many of the original websites may see a reduction in their own rankings because of the duplicative data online.  Reduced rankings and traffic may lead to a reduction in revenue.

I like to think that many website operators try hard to find a happy medium between freedom of speech and curtailing over the top behavior.  That’s why websites have terms of service on what kind on content is allowed and not allowed and users are expected to follow the rules.  When a website operator learns of an “over the top” posting or other situation that would warrant removal or redaction, many website operators are eager to help people.  What is frustrating is when a website feels like they are helping a person only to get word days later that the same content has popped up elsewhere online – meaning a copycat website.  In some instances people wrongly accuse the original website for being connected to the copycat website and the original website is left to defend themselves and try to convince the person their accusations are inaccurate.  There is the saying of “no good deed goes unpunished” and I think that it is true for website operators in that position.

As the new-age saying goes “The Struggle is Real!”

I don’t know what the solution is to all of these problems.  If you have kept up with this Fighting Fair on the Internet blog series that I have been working on over the past year, you know that I REALLY disapprove of people abusing the internet.  I support the freedom of speech but I also think that the freedom of speech shouldn’t give one a license to be a-hole either.  I don’t know that there is a bright line rule for what content should and should not be acceptable…but as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said in Jacobellis v. Ohio back in 1964 to describe his threshold for obscenity, “I know it when I see it.”  For me, after having seen so much through work and just in my own personal life, I think that is true.  My hope is that if I keep talking about these issues and hosting educational seminars and workshops in effort to raise awareness perhaps people may join my mission.  I firmly believe that we can ALL do better with our online actions…all we need is a little education and guidance.

Until next time friends…

 

Fighting Fair on the Internet: Part 1 | The Internet Sucks!

Okay, so I know that the title “The Internet Sucks!” is rather harsh, but lately that is how I feel.  There was once a time where the internet was used as an actual tool and not a weapon.  I recognize that to a great degree it still a tool because we can share thoughts, ideas, and solid information and we are all the wiser for it.  No longer do we have to go to the library to look things up or wait a year for something to be published.  Now, everything is at our fingertips within seconds and from an educational perspective, this is an awesome thing!  Even from the perspective of being able to share meaningful thoughts and ideas in a collaborative environment makes the internet awesome, especially when it is used for good and positive.  Of course it has also helped us reconnect and stay connected with friends and family who live across the globe…and for me I am thankful to have such opportunity.  Yes, there are countless reasons why the internet is still good – but that’s not what I am talking about – otherwise this would be a short posting about puppies, baby goats, and kittens.  What I am referring to is the other side of that coin…

As I scroll through all of the social media pages that are out there, reading the different postings regarding…well, just about anything someone happens to write about, I find myself being ever thankful that I grew up in a time when the internet wasn’t so poplar.  It seems that the information highways has become the “misinformation highway” and so many have become quick to believe and consequently “like” and “share” just about anything that is posted…no matter how ridiculous it would seem to anyone who actually stopped and thought about what they were reading for a minute.  Mainstream media wants so badly to draw attention that they will highlight situations that really shouldn’t be highlighted, and then often skew them, because it does nothing more than “stir the pot” and generate ratings.  I have often said those that “stir the post” should have to lick the spoon.  Top that off with the keyboard warriors of today who seem to thrive on being malicious turds and you come to realize that the internet has really become a hostile environment and people are legitimately suffering from it in many different forms.  Someone can’t even post a picture of a puppy without someone saying “that is the ugliest puppy I have ever seen” and go on to get into it with someone else over that comment.  who gives a crap if you think the puppy is ugly?  Why does your opinion on that matter?   Don’t get me wrong, I am all for the freedom of speech (and as a lawyer in my line of work I help advocate for it), however, just because something is legal doesn’t mean that you should push the boundaries just to say you could do it!  Freedom of speech shouldn’t be used as a license to be a dick!  At what point did people bypass the Golden Rule?  Further, and on point, not everything that you say (or write) is protected speech…but so many people forget that or have apparently never been taught that lesson in school.  In my best Mr. Mackey voice from South Park “Bullying is bad…mmmmkay.  Harassing someone is bad…mmmmkay.  Lying and making up stories is bad…mmmmkay. Sure there are exceptions – satire and the like…and that seems all pretty self explanatory to me…but perhaps what I consider common sense isn’t so common?

While the shift has been going on for some time it has only been in the last five years that I have really noticed the change.  Perhaps because I now deal with on a daily basis whether it be for work or I have it thrown in my face every time I read any thread, on any post, on pretty much any topic.  True, I could not read…but the inquisitive social scientist mind I have won’t allow me to simply just dismiss it.  As I see it, there seems to be a drastic increase of people who literally take offense to everything.  At the same time there is an equally drastic increase of people who think being a keyboard warrior troll is somehow productive and funny; and somewhere in the gap between the two extremes are those who can find a bit of humor in some good old fashioned ribbing but know when things have gone too far and won’t engage in those activities.  You know they types that I am I am talking about.  I'm just here for the commentsThey are the ones who literally post the “I’m just here for the comments” meme to a thread to show some level of participation without taking a side…  Why is that?  How has all of this come to be?  Why does everyone want websites that allow third-party content to be the “moral police”?  Even if sites were to start being the “moral police” where does one draw the line in the sand?  Shouldn’t society, as a whole, have a duty to raise awareness and police their own conduct?  Is it a fruitless endeavor to try and get people to police their own conduct or do people generally desire to behave in a positive manner but are just lacking in some basic knowledge and tools for real dispute resolution in today’s technological world?  I mean, let’s face it…it’s not like many of us growing up had parents in this particular environment to draw upon for examples of how to handle these kinds of situations; heck, the game Oregon Trail was considered cool technology I was young let alone the internet.

Through this series of blogs under my self titled topic “Fighting Fair on the Internet” I will discuss my personal viewpoints on these questions in a balanced approach in hopes to help raise awareness on these issues; offer discussion points and/or, at least, some food for thought on the related issues; and provide some general legal commentary and tips for what I call “fighting fair on the internet” along the way.  Of course, while I have some level of education in the social sciences, I certainly do not claim to be an expert…but I am fascinated by human nature and it seems to be such a very relevant and current issue in which I have had some level of experience with.  Stick around friends…I anticipate this is going to be an interesting ride!

Cheers!

Anette