Judge Tosses Woman's Lawsuit Brought Against Google Because A Blogger Said Mean Things About Her

from the SUE-BETTER dept

Because even some lawyers can’t seem to understand the legalities of Section 230 of the CDA or third-party liability, the courts are frequently burdened with stupid defamation lawsuits that can’t survive a motion to dismiss. DC lawyer Harry J. Jordan lobbed one of these lawsuits into court late last year on behalf of Dawn Bennett, who felt she was defamed by a blog run by Scott Pierson, an SEO specialist who apparently failed to make Bennett’s less-than-flattering history with the SEC disappear.

While there may have been a legitimate complaint against Pierson for some of the statements he made, Jordan and Bennett formed a legal suicide pact and decided to sue Google, which did nothing but provide hosting for the blog. The deadly duo pursued this theory in an attempt to hold Google responsible for something a user said:

As Google was aware of plaintiffs’ complaints that Pierson’s blog was factually false and a malicious vendetta against them and meant to cause crippling financial damages, it is therefore equally responsible and liable for the damages plaintiffs’ have suffered.

It doesn’t matter whether Google was aware or not. Short of a court order, Google has no responsibility to kill off a blog simply because someone else doesn’t like its contents. Bennett’s lawyer appeared to be completely unfamiliar with Section 230 because it’s not even addressed in the complaint. It does, however, get discussed in the court’s dismissal of the case [PDF link], as quoted by Eric Goldman.

To salvage their claim, Plaintiffs attempt to argue that a novel issue is presented in this case which requires the court to deny the Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss. Plaintiffs state “[b]ut what courts have not fully addressed is where a service provider, such as Google, adopts definitive prohibitions regarding the content of third party user material, and does not enforce them … [what is] the impact of such failure on Section 203(e) immunity.” Simply, “… does it create such an obligation for itself if it adopts guidelines of what it deems objectionable content and fails to follow through by enforcing such standards?” The answer is “no,” and thus Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss must still be granted. See Klayman, 753 F.3d at 1359–60 (discussing that the CDA bars claims arguing that service providers must be held to a heightened duty of care based on adoption of any statements allocating rights and responsibilities between interactive computer services and their users). “It would be impossible for service providers to screen each of their millions of postings for possible problems.” Zeran v. America Online, Inc., 129 F.3d 327, 331 (4th Cir. 1997). Furthermore, holding Google liable for establishing standards and guidelines would ultimately create a powerful disincentive for service providers to establish any standards or ever decide to remove objectionable content, which the CDA was enacted to prevent.

It’s an old argument, but it doesn’t make it any less ridiculous. The plaintiff tried to convince the court that Google taking any actions at all to moderate content it hosts makes its legally liable for anything found defamatory. The final sentence of this quote makes it clear any ruling finding moderation efforts by third parties somehow erases their Section 230 protections would only make things worse by forcing every platform provider to take an entirely hands-off approach to user-generated content.

This is basic Section 230 stuff, as attorney Harry Jordan should know. But as we’ve seen before, even lawyers providing education classes for other lawyers don’t seem to have a firm understanding of Section 230 protections, which is why this sort of thing happens far more often than it should. A person representing himself may not fully understand the intricacies of the CDA, but lawyers definitely should. Otherwise, this sort of embarrassment awaits them in court, and they’ll have inverted the old saying by making it possible for someone to retain counsel, but still have a fool for a lawyer.

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Comments on “Judge Tosses Woman's Lawsuit Brought Against Google Because A Blogger Said Mean Things About Her”

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31 Comments
TKnarr (profile) says:

Now if we could only get courts to routinely add “Since counsel for the plaintiff was plainly aware or should have been aware that this argument has been ruled to be invalid, this court rules that counsel for the plaintiff shall pay all defendant’s costs and fees in this matter and refers counsel for the plaintiff to the Bar for disciplinary action for professional malfeasance.”.

John85851 (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Yes, exactly.

The only way these kinds of lawsuits will stop is if the courts start penalizing the lawyers who should know better. It’s like I say every time one of these stories comes up:
1) The lawyer doesn’t know about copyright law and doesn’t know he doesn’t have a case against Google.
2) He does know copyright law and he does know he doesn’t have a case against Google, but ignores it and files a case anyway because the client paid him to.

I would think either option would be an ethics violation and the lawyer should be penalized.

Anonymous Coward says:

You keep omitting that statute is "mere statute", not the whole of the law.

Common law trumps this. — That’s the key point, though, yes, if Google does nothing after being informed, it BECOMES jointly liable.

I’ll have to know more than Techdirt’s biased for Google view… However, Google is subject to over-arching law, even to a district court in the wilds of British Columbia, among the lumberjacks.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:5 You keep omitting that statute is "mere statute", not the whole of the law.

FWIW, I frequently deal with people at work who forget their passwords because they rely on autocomplete. Autocomplete is a terrible idea. If you can’t be bothered to remember a password, use a password locker instead.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: You keep omitting that statute is "mere statute", not the whole of the law.

Except that that’s not what section 230 says. According to the law they are explicitly NOT liable unless they’ve received a valid court order to take it down. Being “informed” doesn’t mean a goddamned thing.

Consider yourself “informed” about your post.

cpt kangarooski says:

Re: You keep omitting that statute is "mere statute", not the whole of the law.

Please don’t be misinformed by that idiot. Enacted laws trump common law.

This is a very old rule, and was well known to the framers. It really has to be this way: the common law is a collection of rules slowly developed by courts through centuries of decisions of lawsuits in which earlier decisions were used as precedents for later decisions. Most importantly, courts had to develop it for lack of guidance from legislative bodies.

But where a legislature has made its will known, in accordance with the constitution, that is superior to common law, because to act otherwise would be profoundly undemocratic.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: You keep omitting that statute is "mere statute", not the whole of the law.

Let him. It was pricks like him that caused me to research such subjects when I wanted to reply and tell them they were full of shit. I learned a lot about a number of subjects by responding to trolls and making sure I had my facts straight (and reading responses from people doing the same).

That’s why I don’t mind people “feeding” the trolls so much and sometimes do it myself. It’s educational, and if I tire of them the community usually flag which conversations are worth skipping.

orbitalinsertion (profile) says:

Re: You keep omitting that statute is "mere statute", not the whole of the law.

Aside from the other bits of your claim already addressed, rendering this point moot, i am still curious as to what you think “informed” means? A second party claims something different, therefore .. they are correct?

You can “inform” people with contrary positions to something all day. They are in no way obligated to even pay attention.

Bergman (profile) says:

Re: You keep omitting that statute is "mere statute", not the whole of the law.

Um, no. Common law does not trump statutes — it’s the other way around and always has been.

Common law is the body of built-up traditions and legal philosophies that form the basis for the United States legal system. Statutes are formally written/codified laws. Formal laws are superior to traditions.

Oh, and British Columbia is a province in western Canada. DC is the District of Columbia, the capital city of the United States of America. Since the story is about events in the USA, Canada is irrelevant.

Paul Alan Levy (profile) says:

Short of a court order...

Although you say, “Short of a court order, Google has no responsibility to kill off a blog simply because someone else doesn’t like its contents,” Google has no obligation even if the court issues an order against the blogger, because section 230 makes it immune even from injunctive relief.

Although Google typically responds in that sort of situation, that is a matter of its discretion. At least for now: that is the issue before the California Supreme Court in Hassell v. Bird

CaesarAlan says:

Seriously, Harry: you had one job!

Every time I see a case like this, I roll my eyes. I can accept that someone representing themselves might not be familiar with section 230, but ACTUAL LAWYERS? It is quite literally their job to know this stuff.

Blithely ignoring relevant statute (as seems to have happened here) is flat out negligent. It’s a failure to represent their client’s interests, and there should be (financial and/or professional) consequences for that.

I guess I’ll just have to settle for the (admittedly more amusing) consequences that come with internet infamy.

That One Guy (profile) says:

No good options

I’m not sure if this is more a Steve Dallas lawsuit, a lawyer that screwed up one of the core aspects of their job, ‘knowing what the law says’, or a lawyer that knew that the law didn’t say what they wanted it to say and filed under the hope that the judge wouldn’t know what it said.

None of these are exactly flattering options.

Peter (profile) says:

Her only mistakes: She picked the wrong lawyer and the wrong court

The entire internet is currently being steamrollered by the MAFIA using exactly the same argument: Some intermediate with no involvement at all “could have done more”. ISP COX has to pay $25 m in “damages” plus §8m in fees for “not doing enough”. Cox’s arguments – pretty much the same as cite above – were brushed aside by judge O’Grady “Cox’s defensive arguments may have been reasonable as an abstract legal theory”

There are plenty of judges around the world who appear to see the Internet as a threat to humankind that needs to be destroyed, whatever the letter of the law says. And, just in case the judges don’t play ball, there are enough politician s willing to change the law or, worse, “encourage” service providers to “voluntary” censor the internet in the interest of whatever private party pays them some money.

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