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.

“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)

Texas Court Paving the Highway for Abuse of Anonymous Authors’ Rights One Pre-Litigation Discovery Order at a Time: Glassdoor v. Andra Group

The United States has long held close to its heart the right for authors to speak anonymously.  However, protecting an anonymous author is getting more and more difficult these days.  The March 24, 2017 ruling by the Appellate Court for the Fifth District of Texas in Glassdoor, Inc., et al. v. Andra Group, LP certainly didn’t help either.

In my practice I see volumes of subpoenas sent to websites holding third-party anonymous content requesting the anonymous author’s identifying information.   Most of the time Plaintiffs file a John or Jane Doe defamation related litigation, which preserves the statute of limitations, and then they conduct limited discovery in order to ascertain who the proper defendants are and move forward from that point.  Typically, most states have some sort of notice requirement to the anonymous author that would provide them the opportunity to appear and defend their right to remain anonymous.  In the state of Arizona we have the controlling case of Mobilisa v. Doe, 217 Ariz. 103, 114-15, 170 P.3d 712, 723-24 (App. 2007).  It’s common for websites to raise objections on behalf of an anonymous author when the appropriate basic standards have not been met and, as I recently discussed in another article regarding Glassdoor, courts are ruling that websites like Glassdoor have the standing for the same.  This process, including giving author notice in a reasonable way, has always seemed fair to me.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a loophole that many Plaintiffs are taking advantage of, and it can be problematic for anonymous authors and websites alike.  I think that pre-litigation discovery tools (Illinois Rule 224, Texas Rule 202, etc.) are being abused in cases dealing with anonymous authors.   While I firmly believe that purposeful defamers and harassers should have the book thrown at them (i.e., fines, community service and/or educational requirements), often times the burdens on the plaintiff are not that high, it may not require notice to the author, and once an anonymous author’s information is revealed you can’t un-ring that bell.  I believe that pre-litigation discovery tools need either a very high threshold, have a notice requirements like that of Mobilisa or, alternatively, be barred in cases where a party is utilizing it to seek anonymous author information.

In this case Andra filed a Rule 202 petition against Glassdoor seeking to discover the anonymous reviewers’ identities relating to some ten (10) allegedly defamatory postings made about it.  Glassdoor, along with two (2) of the anonymous authors, filed an anti-SLAPP dismissal motion.  The trial court denied the motion and granted in part the Rule 202 petition which basically allowed Plaintiff to take the deposition of Glassdoor (even though claims against Glassdoor were not anticipated) regarding two (2) of the anonymous postings, not written by Glassdoor nor either Doe 1 or Doe 2, and was going to limit the deposition to five specific statements within those reviews.  Glassdoor and the anonymous authors understandably appealed the trial court’s ruling.

The Appellate court then skipped over the whole concept of anonymous free speech when it justified the trial court’s order by stating that “[k]nowing the reviews’ contents alone did not tell Andra [plaintiff] whether it had viable claims against the anonymous reviewers” and that “Andra also needed to know not only the reviewers’ relationships with Andra to evaluate potential defensive issues such as substantial truth.”  See Memorandum, p. 7.  Yeah, you read that right.  The balancing test on pages 8-10 are equally problematic and even through the trial court limited the deposition of Glassdoor to a handful of statements the author(s) of the selected statements still didn’t necessarily have notice nor necessarily the opportunity to appear and defend.  Even more troubling is the statement by the Court “[b]ut Rule 202 does not require a petitioner investigating a potential claim to show a probable right in relief on the merits.”  See Id, pg. 12.  Say what?  So a Rule 202 petition can be a BS fishing expedition, not give notice to an author of the BS fishing expedition, require a website to extend time and resources to sit for a BS fishing expedition and/or raise all defenses that may otherwise lie with the knowledge of an author, and that is all okay?  Who made up this batch of Koolaid?  How can the Court not see how this is paving the highway for abuse by plaintiffs?

You can review the entire Memorandum Opinion here: 

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Until next time friends…

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.

 

 

 

Should websites be able to raise objections on behalf of their anonymous users? A California Appellate Court thinks so – Glassdoor v. Superior Court (Machine Zone, Inc.)

While I sometimes think that the California courts can get things wrong, e.g. Hassell v. Bird (2016) 247 Cal.App.4th 1336, rev. granted, (thank goodness) they also, in my opinion, can get things right.  On March 10, 2017, the Sixth Appellate Court for Santa Clara County, California in the matter of Glassdoor, Inc. v. Superior Court of Santa Clara County (Machine Zone, Inc.), under Case No H042824, concluded that Glassdoor  (a website in which workers can post their own reviews about past or current employers) has standing, i.e, the authority, to assert an anonymous user’s interest in maintaining his anonymity against Machine Zone’s efforts to compel Glassdoor to identify him/her.  Can I get a fricken hallelujah!

Clearly I am elated by this ruling.  This is not only good for people who write honest reviews but also for websites that allow third parties to post content on their websites.  In my line of work I have seen parties file claims against anonymous authors sometimes alleging causes of action that wouldn’t even stand up to basic case analysis of the statute of limitations let alone anything more complicated like ensuring they have met the requirements that are necessary under state law in order for a website to release and anonymous author’s identifying information.  These parties will then submit their subpoena or some form of discovery order to a third-party website like Glassdoor and demand production of the identifying author information.  If the website’s subpoena compliance department is lead by anyone like me, chances are they have an entire checklist of criteria for their respective state that must be met prior to production.  Here in Arizona the controlling law is Mobilisa v. Doe (App. 2007) 217 Ariz. 103, 114-15, 170 P.3d 712, 723-24.  Mobilisa requires that a requesting party show: 1) that the anonymous author has been given adequate notice and a reasonable opportunity to respond to the discovery request (which itself has specific requirements that have to be adhered to); 2) that the requesting party’s cause of action could survive a motion for summary judgment on the elements of the claim not dependent on the identify of the anonymous author (and that requires more than laying out a mere prima facie case); and 3) a balance of the parties’ competing interests needs to favor disclosure.  Indeed, Mobilisa sets out some hoops that requesting parties have to jump through in order to try and protect the rights of an anonymous author and if requesting parties don’t conform, chances are that subpoena is going to be met with objection.

While I haven’t seen it all that often, I can think of a few instances where counsel was met with my objections and they tried to argue that the website lacked standing to raise such objections.  Typically I find this to be the biggest cop out – nothing more than an effort to circumvent the rules – especially when they are met with legitimate objections like statute of limitations or failure to meet other requirements.  Many websites, like Glassdoor, will fight this if challenged and I’m pleased to see this outcome.

Absolutely the anonymous author has their rights and can assert them on their own behalf but there are many reasons why an author may not stand up and defend.  What if the author doesn’t get notice of the matter?  I have personally seen some suspicious activities going on in the past and UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh and Public Citizen Litigation Group attorney Paul Alan Levy have helped raised awareness about many of the same concerns that I have had.  Take for example their Washington Post article which discusses “Dozens of suspicious court cases, with missing defendants, aim at getting web pages taken down or deindexed.”  What if the author lacks the knowledge to even understand that they have a defense?  The minute that a lawsuit gets filed defendants tend to get scared – especially if they are not in a solid financial position.  It’s not uncommon for an author to stand behind their story but fear the litigation and so they bury their head in the sand in hopes that the matter will “go away.”  They may not even consider the fact that they have a defense.  It’s not as if many people have legal knowledge -even the basics – and legal departments of websites can’t be giving people legal advice.  What if the author told the truth and cant afford a defense?   Here again I am aware of a situation where a person wrote a review – alleged that the story was truthful, but got sued in another state over the posting and couldn’t afford to appear and defend the situation in the other state.  How is that justice?  I’m sorry ma’am/sir – your right to free speech is only to the extent your pocket book can pay for a defense?  

Now I’m not suggesting that websites take on the litigation defense of all of their users – that would not be economically feasible.  Websites usually have no unique knowledge that would put them in a position to argue truth as a defense or anything like that.  However, I think websites who want to help protect their anonymous authors should have the ability to stand up to those who may be simply trying to take advantage of an anonymous author’s vulnerabilities through basic objections.  If you are making claims that are so far outside the statute of limitations it isn’t even funny, OBJECTION.  You’re case couldn’t stand on it’s own anyway.  If you aren’t following the correct process under the applicable law to ensure that an author has the appropriate notice and reasonable opportunity to defend, OBJECTION.  You can always attempt to cure the deficiencies and try again.  If you can’t – well, then you probably don’t have much of a case in the first place.  It’s a whole lot easier for a website’s legal department or subpoena compliance department to look at a situation and say “Nope, try again…” or “Nope, not happening…” than it is for a user to try and teach themselves the law or hire expensive counsel (face it – even the cheap attorneys aren’t “cheap”) to teach them the law and make the same objections on their behalf – within a short period of time.

I am so glad that the Glassdoor court recognized some of these issues and considered the potential for chilling effects on free speech.  As the Court points out in Glassdoor, “…some attacks on anonymity may be mounted for their in terrorem effect on potential critics.” Glassdoor at p.12.  This is a fantastic ruling and you can review the entire 33 page ruling below or by clicking HERE.

Until next time friends…

Fighting Fair on the Internet – Part 7 | Freedom of Speech – the Double Edged Sword

If you’ve been keeping up with this Fighting Fair on the Internet blog series you know I believe that: the Internet sucks (well, it can suck); we as a society have lost the human connection and mannersopinions are like poop (we need more courtesy flushes); no one really likes the person who crosses the line onlinewords DO hurt; and that my hope is that people can dig down and make America KIND again…and that really goes for the rest of the world caught up in the three-ring circus without a ring-master that is life.  This of course begs the question: what is the root cause of the problem?  I could run a poll of 1,000 different people and I suspect I could get 1,000 different answers to that question.  So let’s look at one concept:  Freedom of Speech.

I know this is a huge topic and there is no way I could touch on all aspects but recently a situation occurred that made me look at both sides of the freedom of speech coin.  Sure, I have thought about it a lot – especially given the nature of my line of work – but this was different.  You know, the funny thing about freedom of speech is that rarely does one dislike it unless and until something is said or written negatively about them or it otherwise provokes negative emotions within.  And, I suppose it goes without saying, that what one person finds offensive will often not be the same, at least to the same degree, as the next person.  I believe that each person and their perspectives are shaped by their unique set of circumstances in life – upbringing, religion, education, and personal life experiences.  For example, one who may have been brought up in a family where there was domestic violence in the home may have a much deeper and more passionate emotion on the subject than one who didn’t have such trauma in their life growing up.  Someone could joke about it to someone that hasn’t experience it and it may come across funny.  However, the same joke to the person who has experienced it may not find it so funny.  The thing is, there really is not a “bright line” rule and therefore leaves a lot of room for disagreements.

Let’s look at freedom of speech in a social context:  Typically if something is said more generally – it’s likely to be less offensive to an individual.  Someone might say “I don’t like the president!” and while some people may disagree with that opinion they are not likely to take it personally.  That’s because  it’s not about them personally.  But what happens when criticism is directed towards a specific individual?  I don’t know a single person that likes criticism of any kind.  True, some people take criticism better than others but still, even constructive criticism, can take a toll on one’s emotional well-being depending on how the information is presented.

I don’t think Newton’s Third Law: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” applies only to motion.  Think about kids on the playground; one kid says something mean or does something mean to another kid, the first reaction, right or wrong, for the kid on the receiving end is to do something mean back – whether it be harsh words or physical violence.  The internet has, in many respects, become a giant sandbox full of bratty little children – except, most people interacting online aren’t “children.”  Someone expresses their negative opinion, or worse – maybe makes up some kind of total BS, about someone online and then what happens?  The person who got called out, out of hurt feelings and anger, will likely come up with something equally as mean, or worse, back.  It’s like a perpetual fight that never seems to end, and, worse yet, the playground fight is online, for all to see, FOREVER.  Then what sets in is the fools remorse that I talk about in my presentations and briefly in my article that speaks on the topic of crossing the line online…and many times there isn’t much that can be done about it.  You can’t un-ring a bell.

Final thoughts:  Be careful with your words in person, and especially online.  It’s okay for you exercises your free speech right to voice your opinion about things, but if you do it about someone specifically, right or wrong, you should be prepared and understand that there is a good chance that the person who you wrote about may exercise their freedom of speech, possible with “playground tactics,” to come back with the same, or even worse, reaction.  And remember, not all opinions are created equal.  Sometimes it’s okay to give an opinion a “courtesy flush.

Until next time friends.

 

 

Snapchat Story Hit Home With Students

If you read my last blog article discussing how Kids Get the Short End of the Lesson Learning Stick, you know that I think that the internet today has a way of prohibiting kids from learning lessons “the old fashioned way.”  As part of my mission to educate kids (and adults) on the very serious issues that I have seen evolve out of one’s use of the Internet I decided to start guest speaking and my very first stop was my personal home town.

Last Monday I spent my time up at Blue Ridge High School in Lakeside, Arizona giving a presentation to the students regarding Internet use and the repercussions of the same.  This wasn’t your traditional “bullying is bad” speech that most kids get.  This was a full blown actions and consequences from the same speech.  If you want kids to have a clue, you have to tell them why things are bad…not just “be nice because bullying is bad” and use current examples.  Remember, chances are these kids are far more tech savvy than we could even dream of being!

20160516 - BRHS - Junior-Senior - Q2 re Top 4 Social Media platforms

Part of my presentation involves students taking an online quiz.  Out of the 56 students that responded from Session 2 (Junior and Senior students only) I learned that Snapchat was the most popular medium of Social Media being used by the students, following closely by Instagram and Twitter.  Upon learning this I used a very timely article that I just read about involving Snapchat as a teaching opportunity.  I discussed the recent story that has been floating around in mainstream media (e.g. Washington Post, CNN Money, etc.) about the 18 year old girl who was trying to take a selfie, while driving her father’s Mercedes with passengers in the vehicle, at a speed of over 100 mph, just so that she could apply a Snapchat filter to her selfie showing how fast she was going.  According to the articles, the girl ran into another driver causing him permanent injuries and the victim is now suing Snapchat under a product liability theory.  You can read the entire article as published by the Washington Post HERE.  Be prepared to be a little upset over it.

I explained to the students that not only will this girl likely face criminal and civil problems (and fees for counsel relating to the same) but I also talked about how this has become national news; that since she is over the age of 18 her name is plastered all over the internet in connection to her mistake; and to consider the comments that the general public is posting in relation to the article.  I told the kids that people are crazy and if you read the comments, some wanted that girl dead!  Sure it is harsh, but it’s the truth and I told them that this girl is probably the recipient of some serious hate mail because, for whatever reason, that is what this world thinks is right to do.  Indeed, not only does this young girl have to deal with the fact that her actions hurt someone very bad for the rest of her life, and deal with potential civil and criminal claims, but also may have to deal with hate mail…and that her family may also be subject to the same kind of ridicule.  I drove those points home.

Just looking at their faces as I told the story; the number of side conversations that ensued; and the questions that I received from the audience told me they were listening!  They were really listening!

I have been saying for a long time that education needs to happen now and I am pleased to be apart of that process!  If you have or know of a school or youth group that you think need to hear more about this topic, from someone who really understands and can present the information in an informative and entertaining way, consider sending that person this blog article or contact me.  I am currently booking lectures for students (and adults) for 2016 through June 2017.

Until next time friends…

P.S. – If any of this resonates with you, or you agree with that I have said, please consider sharing this article and/or leave me a comment.  I’d love to hear your feedback and/or about your personal experiences.

 

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