Lawyer: Yahoo Lost Sec. 230 Immunity Because It Didn't Hand Over Personal Info; Court: GTFO
from the please-allow-me-to-entertain-you-with-my-legal-theories dept
Sometimes litigants start out with a good case… or at least a credible one. Then they ruin it by getting creative. The day-to-day work of adjudicating may be a bit dry, but novel legal arguments rarely provide anything more than entertainment for bystanders.
Lawyer and author Thomas Hall originally sued three individuals for alleged online harassment. According to his first complaint, Hall had drawn the ire of supposed white supremacists who bombarded him with hundreds of “threatening and disparaging emails.” Hall sought a restraining order against the three defendants, but apparently needed a bit more personal info before he could get that order approved. [via Eric Goldman]
That’s when he got creative. Having received no help from Yahoo in identifying the people behind the alleged harassment campaign, Hall decided to sue Yahoo as well. That’s when the case went from credible to WTF. From the decision [PDF]:
On August 29 2014, Hall filed the instant action against Lund, Jessop, and Dunk for intentional infliction of emotional distress, libel, false light invasion of privacy, and invasion of privacy. In addition to those named or identified in the previous harassment action, Hall named as a defendant derHoaxster@gmail.com (derHoaxster), and alleged that derHoaxster had “published multiple statements disparaging Plaintiff as dishonest in his law practice and in his personal life.” Hall also named Yahoo as a defendant, based on allegations that Yahoo had published or republished threatening and defamatory statements made by Lund, Jessop, Dunk, and derHoaxster.
Yahoo, naturally, claimed it had done no such thing. It also pointed out postings by third parties were the third parties’ problem, not Yahoo’s. Hall, however, argued Yahoo could be proven to be responsible for the supposed republished content. The court humored him. Hall did not fail to disappoint.
On July 17, 2015, Hall filed a first amended complaint (FAC) that included the same causes of action alleged in his initial complaint as well as a new fifth cause of action against Yahoo for intentional interference with contract. In the new cause of action, Hall alleged that Yahoo had flooded his America Online (AOL) email account with more than 2000 emails denigrating AOL’s services. Hall’s FAC also alleged that Yahoo was not shielded by the CDA because Yahoo had failed to identify the users of the screen names who had posted defamatory statements about him, and that Yahoo itself was the “content provider” of those statements.
This was Hall’s attempt to peel back Yahoo’s Section 230 immunity. It’s an interesting theory — Yahoo’s failure to identify strips it of immunity. It’s also one without any legal basis. This amended complaint didn’t do much for Hall. Yahoo responded with one of its own under California’s anti-SLAPP law. In support of its motion, Yahoo submitted an affidavit stating it did not create any of the content in its forums, bulletin boards, chatrooms, etc.
Hall simply doubled down.
Hall opposed the demurrer and anti-SLAPP motion, arguing that Yahoo was not shielded from liability under the CDA because it had not provided, in response to Hall’s discovery requests, telephone numbers for the users of the screen names “firstname.lastname@example.org” and “derHoaxster@yahoo.com.”
The anti-SLAPP motion was granted and Hall appealed. The appeals court takes particular interest in Hall’s bizarre Section 230 theories.
Hall’s argument that Yahoo was required to identify the persons who posted the objectionable content by providing the names, addresses, telephone numbers, or other identifying information for such persons is legally unsupported. The CDA contains no such requirement, and Hall cites no authority that construes the statute to impose such a requirement. Delfino v. Agilent Technologies, Inc. (2006) 145 Cal.App.4th 790 (Delfino), a case on which Hall relies, undermines rather than supports his position. The court in Delfino concluded that because “there was no evidence that Agilent [the interactive computer service provider] played any role whatsoever in ‘the creation or development’ of” the objectionable content that was the subject of the action, it clearly satisfied the third element required for a finding of CDA immunity. (Id. at p. 807.) Here, there was undisputed evidence that Yahoo was not responsible, in whole or in part, for the content of the emails and posts that are the subject of Hall’s claims. The trial court accordingly did not err by granting the anti-SLAPP motion.
As the court points out earlier in the decision, Yahoo’s declaration that it did not post or publish the allegedly defamatory content went uncontested by Hall. Instead, Hall picked his misunderstanding of Section 230 as the hill to die on. On top of having his lawsuit dismissed (both for failure to state a claim and under California’s anti-SLAPP law), Hall will now be paying Yahoo’s legal cost.
The decision here is another reminder of two things:
1. There is still no federal anti-SLAPP law, something that would greatly discourage baseless lawsuits like these from being brought in federal court. It would also discourage the same behavior in state courts, which is where this one was filed.
2. Section 230 provides important protections for service providers who are almost always the easiest party to find and serve, even if they’ve done nothing else but provide a platform for people to speak their minds.