Thursday, January 25, 2007

Could the Communications Decency Act Get Revised?

See the latest updates on the case in the comments....

The Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996 protects minors (people under 18 years of age) from obscene electronic communication. Another part of the CDA deals with libel and slander on the Internet. According to the CDA, if libelous or slanderous speech is published on a web site, the web site operator is not liable for the information if it is posted by someone. For example, if someone goes on the forum on my web site and publishes slanderous statements about a figure, I am not liable for what that poster said (although the victim can pursue legal action against the poster). There is a defamation lawsuit currently happening that may change that.

To summarize the case, Todd Hollis is suing Tasha Joseph, the web operator of, for defamation of character. According to the case, an anonymous poster posted false, slanderous comments about Mr. Hollis, and Ms. Joseph refused to remove the comments when she was asked by Mr. Hollis to do so. It was recommended to Mr. Hollis to post a rebuttal comment or to post his own web site countering the charges.

John Seigenthaler Sr. lost a legal battle with Wikipedia over a "prankster" posting on Wikipedia that he (Mr. Seigenthaler) was involved in the assasination of John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. This is the case that actually added the section (section 230) to the CDA absolving web site operators of liability from users posting information on their sites

Although there is a precedence that was already set regarding libelous information published on a web site, the lawyers for Mr. Hollis are finding holes in the law protecting web site operators. If the case is found in Mr. Hollis's favor, this could change how web site operators maintain their sites.

My Take
As a web site operator, what do I think of this situation?

The intention of Section 230 of the CDA was supposed to help promote the freedom of legal speech on the Internet. I can understand the fear of changing Section 230 because America is becoming a more litigious society. If someone decided to post an opinion of a product, service, or person on a web site, the person being critiqued could "cry foul" and sue the web site operator and the poster for defamation. Although the lawsuit would probably be dismissed because the person was expressing an opinion and not stating comments as fact, it would still cost the web site operator money and time to fight the legal battle.

However, I have two concerns regarding Section 230:

  • Even though I am not liable for what someone publishes on my site, whether it's on my forums or on this blog, I still try to practice due diligence by monitoring comments before I publish them, reviewing requests for user IDs for the forum, and monitoring the forum for inappropriate posts. There are other web site operators that perform the same due diligence to prevent situations like this. The problem is not all web site operators practice due diligence. Because they are not legally obligated to monitor third-party content on their site, they don't have to spend the time reviewing the published material. As a result, situations like Mr. Hollis's occur.

  • My concern is the double standard regarding how published media is treated. According to Section 230, Ms. Joseph is not responsible for what someone posts about others because it was published on the Internet. If Ms. Joseph was a publisher of print media (a newspaper or a magazine), and if the same information about Mr. Hollis was published in the print media, she is liable for what was published, and she can be sued for libel.

If the case is found in Mr. Hollis's favor, this could cause a review of the Section 230. If Section 230 is revised, it will make web site operators more aware of what gets published on their web site. While, in general, I think that Section 230 does need to be revised, the only concern that I have is that it could trigger frivolous lawsuits because someone didn't like the opinion that someone else published.


Anonymous said...

Lawsuit Dismissed Against Popular Social Networking Website!

April 10, 2007
(AP) A Florida-based Web site that invites women to warn others about men they have dated cannot be sued in a Pennsylvania court by an attorney who said its postings falsely claimed he was unfaithful and had sexually transmitted diseases.

Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr. ruled he has no jurisdiction over part of the lawsuit Todd Hollis filed last June against and its creator, Tasha C. Cunningham, 34, of Miami.

Hollis, of Pittsburgh, claimed Cunningham's site is liable because it solicits negative comments but does not screen them for truthfulness. Hollis also is also suing those who posted comments that questioned his sexuality and said he tried to dodge paying child support.

The judge let stand the attorney's defamation claims against seven women who posted messages criticizing him on the site.

Cunningham and her attorneys say a 1996 federal law shields Web sites from such lawsuits.

Wettick did not address that issue. He simply ruled that Pennsylvania's court system has no jurisdiction over a Florida Web site, even though Pennsylvanians post messages on it. The ruling, issued Thursday, does not address Hollis' still-pending claims against women who posted the messages.

Hollis said he did not learn of the judge's decision until The Associated Press called him for comment Tuesday. Hollis has not decided whether to sue the Web site again in another venue.

"I think he must have had the idea that just because you can access the Internet anywhere in the world that you can sue someone anywhere in the world, and that's not true," said Robert Byer, Cunningham's Pittsburgh-based attorney.

Byer acknowledged Hollis could refile the suit in Florida or in U.S. District Court, which accepts lawsuits involving parties in different jurisdictions. "But then he'd come up against the Communications Decency Act, which says the site can't be held liable for postings by a third-party user," Byer said.

Hollis contends Cunningham can be sued because she is more than just an inactive overseer.

Cunningham's site has tripled in size since the lawsuit was filed, with 27,000 profiles that she markets as "a new cost-effective weapon in the war on cheating men." Cunningham works full-time on the site and is developing others, including a Spanish language version that will launch in June.

One of the women Hollis sued has since filed a counterclaim, denying she made any posts. Another Pittsburgh-area woman who dated Hollis, Meritt Lattimore Dallas, acknowledged posting comments but denied damaging his reputation.

Dallas' attorney, Laurene Beckie Kane, said much of the bad publicity Hollis received came from his own efforts to publicize his case in Pittsburgh-area media.

"If that's affected him, that's his own doing," Kane said.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for the update, anonymous!

The judge's decision legally makes sense regarding jurisdiction. Mr. Hollis can still sue the women in his jurisdiction (Pennsylvania) who posted the comments, but Pennsylvania doesn't have jursidiction over the a web site that's based in Florida. However, Mr. Hollis can still bring up a lawsuit against the web site in Florida.

I'm interested to see if he decides to pursue the defamation lawsuit against Ms. Cunningham in Florida.