Libel Lawsuit Has A Bunch Of Crazy Ideas About How Section 230 Immunity Works
from the and-RICO-too! dept
If you want a masterclass in misunderstanding pretty much everything about Section 230 of the CDA, this libel lawsuit — filed by a massage business owner against a Redditor, Reddit, and a few board members — will fill this really weird hole in your life. I won’t judge. But I will ask questions. Judgmental questions. (h/t Eric Goldman)
Also, it’s a RICO lawsuit.
There’s a lot to unpack here, so we’ll start at the top. The plaintiffs claim someone known as “DiggDejected” on Reddit libeled their massage business by claiming… well, the claims aren’t exactly clear. The lawsuit claims the disputed content is “libel per-se,” but never actually details the content of the disputed posts other than say one of them suggested the its spa parties for kids “gave kids diseases.”
The complaint [PDF] complains Reddit has never removed the posts the plaintiffs claim are “illegal” defamation. It also asks the court to ignore the fact that the statute of limitations has run out on some of the content they’re suing about. It’s that kind of a lawsuit.
The RICO allegations are as bad as you’d expect. Possibly even worse. First, the plaintiffs claim the Redditor, Reddit board members, and the site itself are conspiring to keep this libelous content on the site. That’s only part of it, though. There’s also a conspiracy theory (in the Alex Jones way, not the “actionable tort” way) presented that says the members of Reddit’s board being sued are also involved with Y Combinator, the famous startup accelerator.
Apparently, Y Combinator funded a mobile on-demand startup called “UnwindMe.” The plaintiffs claim this company is in direct competition with their company, which also provides on-call massages. This startup is now dead — the one directly funded by Y Combindator. It was then acquired by Soothe, Inc., another competitor not linked with the defendants, but the lawsuit imagines whatever compensation they obtained from the sale of UnwindMe motivated Reddit’s refusal to take down derogatory posts about the plaintiffs and their massage company.
After delivering several paragraphs detailing this highly-attenuated conspiracy theory (and doing irreversible damage to readers’ brain cells and patience), the plaintiffs arrive at this conclusion.
The above statements establish that there was a financial and racketeering motive for the maintenance of this post. This could have easily been at the request of Justin Bassett, Alexis Ohanian, or Samuel Altman, or anyone else who was invested in Soothe, in order to prevent our success as a major competing brand to Soothe, Inc. It is quite possible and, in fact, likely, that the other founders of Reddit are also invested in Soothe, Inc., with the potential for racketeering profits hanging in the balance of the success or failure of our competing company.
So… that’s the RICO end of it, summarized but probably not clarified. I’m sorry. I tried.
Here’s the Section 230 end of it, which has to be read to be believed. And by “believed,” I mean proof exists that people are failing to comprehend Section 230 immunity in new and exciting ways.
The first way is to claim that Section 230 immunity for social media platforms shouldn’t exist because it prevents plaintiffs from suing platforms for content they didn’t create. Seriously.
The purpose of our court system is providing a lawful forum for the redress of grievances. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act should not, then, be read, in such a manner, that a libeled, or otherwise illegally and unlawfully violated, person, persons, business, or service provided by a business, cannot find suitable legal remedy for provable crimes of libel, and others, with no means of having such harmful statements deleted, retracted, or have anyone whatsoever, held liable for various damages arising from violations of various rules and laws.
Just to be clear: at the federal level, libel is not a crime. Just to be even clearer, Section 230 immunity only prevents plaintiffs like these from suing Reddit over content created by third party users. It does not prevent them from suing the person who posted it. All these plaintiffs have to do is remove every defendant but the one that actually posted the supposed libel and all these “problems” with Section 230 will simply melt away.
But no. There’s more wrong to be had. The plaintiffs are right the CDA was enacted to help protect children from online pornography. But everything else is just wrong. The lawsuit actually claims FOSTA and its Section 230 collateral damage was not just instrumental, but essential, to the shutdown and prosecution of Backpage and its owners.
In addition, a more recent law has removed many of the protections afforded by Section 230, in giving specific redresses to persons who have been violated by certain forum type websites. In fact, BackPage.com was literally shut down (actually seized by the federal government “as part of an enforcement action by the [FBI], the [USPIS], and the [IRS] Criminal Investigation Division”, without warning, upon passage of the FOSTA act) over third party posting of content to their site on the basis of the newly enacted FOSTA Bill. This bill removes the legal shield for websites that post content created by others, and enables states and victims to obtain redress and recover damages.
This law, specifically, caused the shutdown and seizure of the website backpage.com, which was a known advertising forum for prostitution, human trafficking, and sex slavery, while hiding behind the shield of Section 230. Just as in that instance, the laws should be interpreted as they were designed to be interpreted, and, as stated before, should not allow perpetrators of real crimes to hide behind laws that were never meant to protect them from prosecution for true criminal acts.
The other stuff in there, I assume, alludes to the RICO, but it’s impossible to tell since the plaintiffs fervently believe libel is also a criminal act — something evidenced by all the FBI raids targeting suspected defamers.
Building on the premise that the CDA was meant to protect children, the plaintiffs say Section 230 immunity should be ignored by the court and replaced with some sort of Section 230 protection for the plaintiffs. I can’t try to understand this for you. You’re on your own.
PROTECTION UNDER SECTION 230 FOR PLANTIFFS, RATHER THAN DEFENDANTS. A Child who has gone to our parties, or a classmate, or friend, of a kid who has attended our parties, may see the post and (wrongly ) believe they, themselves, or their fnend who attended, has contracted a disease. Such is not beyond reasonable,as we host Kids Galleries that the children visit, and we’ve had thousands of attendees. Such would clearly be traumatic and stress-producing, possibly causing social stigma, and is clearly within purview of the main intent of Section 230. So rather than Defendants being protected. Plaintiffs assert that we, Donn Albano, Heather Miller, Mountainside Diversified,and our brands. Mobile kids Spa Parties and Mountainside Diversified, and websites NJmassages.com, and NJmassage.info, are in fact, the protected parties in this instance.
I guess I can get behind this. I agree the plaintiffs shouldn’t be sued for derogatory content posted by Redditors.
The lawsuit ends on a hopeful note though. Well, it actually goes on for a few more paragraphs, including demands for $1 million, immediate and permanent removal of “hateful and harassing statements,” and for the judge to order this removal even if it finds Section 230 immunizes Reddit against this lawsuit. But the hopeful note is exactly that: the airing of a wishlist, following the airing of grievances.
It is my hope that this court will understand that there is a lot more going on in this particular case than simply a case of a third party posting a random statement on Reddit, and that this particular case actually seems to involve collusion and conspiracy, in violation of multiple federal laws and statutes, and that even smaller businesses should be protected from predatory companies, whether they are social media sites or other types of sites. Section 230 should not be broadly interpreted in this instance, as it does not apply when conspiracy, as demonstrated herein, has occurred. The CDA was not drafted to serve as a blanket immunity against redress, or a nullification of legal due process.
Ok, then. The “understand” part of this wish is going to need a hell of a lot of hope. This lawsuit, like many other lawsuits (pretty much all other lawsuits, actually) is simply asking for the court to find in favor of its legal theories and punish/reward appropriately. That’s fine. But you can’t win if you’re so completely wrong about the law, as these plaintiffs are.