from the needs-to-be-at-least-50%-less-obtuse dept
Hopefully some good news will follow the bad news handed out by the California Appeals Court earlier this year. In a ruling that did some serious damage to Section 230 protections and the First Amendment, the court decided to enforce an injunction against Yelp for a defamatory review -- despite Yelp not being an actual party to the lawsuit.
Dawn Hassell sued a former client over a defamatory review she allegedly posted on Yelp. The defendant, Ava Bird, never bothered to show up in court. Hassell secured a default judgment against Bird. All well and good, except for the fact that Hassell and the court brought Yelp into the equation, without ever giving the site a chance to respond to the proposed injunction.
This drive-by injunction opens the door for abuse by aggrieved parties. It allows plaintiffs to sue parties they're pretty sure won't show up in court, obtain default judgments, and use those judgments to force third parties to remove negative reviews, articles, etc. This eliminates any form of due process for third-party websites -- services that should be covered by Section 230 whether or not they voluntarily remove reviews. Yelp was never given a chance to respond to Hassell's allegations nor was it allowed to challenge the injunction she obtained.
[T]he decision below offers plaintiffs a roadmap for violating these speakers’ rights. Say a business dislikes some comment in a newspaper’s online discussion section. The business can then sue the commenter, who might not have the money or expertise to fight the lawsuit. It can get a consent judgment (perhaps by threatening the commenter with the prospect of massive liability) or a default judgment. And it can then get a court to order the newspaper to delete the comment, even though the newspaper had no opportunity to challenge the claim, and may not have even heard about the claim until after the judgment was entered. This is directly analogous to what plaintiff Hassell did in this very case.
It's not as though shady reputation management outfits or thin-skinned entities need any encouragement to abuse the legal process to make criticism disappear. We've already seen abuse of both the DMCA process and the court system to push Google towards delisting reviews no court has actually found to be defamatory. The Appeals Court decision does nothing more than legitimize another shady tactic: suing someone who likely won't appear in court, but enforcing the judgment against a deeper-pocketed party who definitely would have made an appearance... if only they'd actually been named in the lawsuit.
The brief goes on to point out that orders like this -- predicated on arguments one party never had a chance to respond to -- are unconstitutional and cannot be enforced.
Yelp, Amazon, and other such sites cannot be ordered to remove an allegedly libelous post, without an opportunity to themselves dispute this restriction on their own speech rights. The Court of Appeal erred in treating Yelp as essentially lacking First Amendment rights here. See Pet. for Review 22 (copy of Court of Appeal opinion) (“Yelp’s factual position in this case is unlike that of the . . . appellants [in Marcus v. Search Warrants, 367 U.S. 717 (1961)], who personally engaged in protected speech activities by selling books, magazines and newspapers.”). A site such as Yelp or Amazon is, if anything, even more engaged in protected speech than a bookstore, and more like a magazine creator than just a magazine seller: It creates a coherent speech product—a Web page that aggregates readers’ comments—and distributes it to readers. That 47 U.S.C. § 230 immunizes Yelp from tort liability as a publisher for the material that it reproduces does not strip Yelp of its First Amendment rights as a creator and distributor of the speech aggregating the material.
It's almost unimaginable that this decision will be allowed to stand. It upends the legal process and creates a hostile environment for third-party content hosts in California. But it's impossible to claim this definitely will be overturned, what with the state's courts displaying an unfortunate amount of schizophrenia when handling Section 230-related cases. At stake here is the First Amendment, more than Section 230 protections, but both are definitely under attack. The Appeals Court has given plaintiffs a way to route around Section 230 and stifle speech hosted by services they'll never have to face off with in court.
from the yet-another-abuse-of-the-legal-system dept
Earlier this year, complaint site Pissed Consumer noticed a disturbing new trend in the dark art of reputation management: unnamed rep management firms were using a couple of lawyers to run bogus defamation lawsuits through a local court to obtain court orders demanding the removal of "defamatory" reviews.
What was unusual wasn't the tactic itself. Plenty of bogus defamation lawsuits have been filed over negative reviews. It's that these lawsuits were resolved so quickly. Within a few weeks of the initial filing, the lawsuit would be over. Each lawsuit improbably skipped the discovery process necessary to uncover anonymous reviewers and proceeded straight to judgment with a (bogus) confessional statement from each "reviewer" handed in by the "defamed" entity's lawyer for the judge's approval. Once these were rubber stamped by inattentive judges, the lawyers served Google with court orders to delist the URLs.
To date, no one has uncovered the reputation management firm behind the bogus lawsuits. In each case, the companies purporting to be represented by these lawyers were shells -- some registered as businesses on the same day their lawsuits were filed.
It's one thing to do this sort of thing from behind the veil of quasi-anonymity afforded by the use of shell companies. It's quite another to file a bogus lawsuit with an apparently forged signature (of the supposed defamer) under your own name. But that's exactly what appears to have happened, as detailed in this post by Public Citizen's Paul Alan Levy.
In addition to posting his reviews of Mitul Patel on Yelp, [Matthew] Chan posted on RateMDs, kudzu.com and Healthgrades.com about his unsatisfactory experiences with Dr. Patel. Chan’s is but one of a number of negative reviews directed at Patel on these various sites, but Patel apparently took particular umbrage at this one: he filed a pro se libel action claiming, in highly conclusory terms, that the reviews were false and defamatory.
It doesn't get much more conclusory than this filing [PDF], which runs only three pages -- with one page containing nothing more than a date and a signature. The complaint lists the URLs of Chan's reviews, says they're defamatory... and that's basically it. No part of the reviews are quoted as evidence of defamation. The filing simply declares every review defamatory and demands an injunction. But that's the kind of detail you can omit when you know you're never going to have to confront the accused in court.
[I]nstead of suing Chan in Georgia, Patel filed in the circuit court for the city of Baltimore, Maryland, a court that would ordinarily have no personal jurisdiction over a Georgia consumer sued for criticizing a Georgia dentist. Patel justified suing there by identifying “Mathew Chan” as the defendant – note that the spelling of the given name is slightly different – and alleging that this Mathew Chan “maintains a primary residence located in Baltimore, Maryland.”
There's a problem with both the defendant named and the primary address. The name is misspelled, perhaps deliberately so. The address listed in the complaint is completely bogus.
The fact that the both the online docket for the case, and the “consent motion for injunction and final judgment” bearing a signature for “Mathew Chan,” list his address as 400 East Pratt St. in Baltimore implies to me that this is a case of deliberate fraud, because so far as I have been able to determine, 400 East Pratt Street is a downtown building that contains only offices, retail establishments and restaurants, but no residences.
Despite these deficiencies, the lawsuit made it past a judge because it contained a supposed mea culpa from "Mathew Chan" of "400 East Pratt Street" admitting to the defamatory postings. This motion with the bogus signature and admission was approved by judge Philip S. Jackson, who also instructed "Mathew Chan" to issue notices to search engines to delist the URLs if removing the original reviews proved impossible.
The real Matthew Chan -- who posted the reviews -- had never heard of the lawsuit until after the injunction had already been approved and served. Yelp notified him of the court order it had received. Chan, who still lives in Georgia as far as he can tell, informed Yelp of the situation and the review site decided to reinstate his review. Other sites, however, took the order at face value and removed the reviews. It appears Yelp was the only site to reach out to Chan when presented with the court order -- something that doesn't exactly bode well for users of other review sites. If sites protected by Section 230 are in this much of a hurry to remove content, they're really not the best venues for consumers' complaints.
Somewhat surprisingly, Levy received a response (of sorts) from Mitul Patel's lawyer. They claim this is the first they've heard of the lawsuit filed in Patel's name targeting negative reviews of Patel's dentistry. This wasn't delivered in a comment or statement, but rather in the form of a retraction demand [PDF]. The opening paragraphs are inadvertently hilarious.
This letter is to advise you that I have been retained to represent Mitul Patel, DDS, regarding the contents of your blog, dated Friday, August 19, 2016, entitled "Georgia Dentist Mitul Patel Takes Phony Litigation Scheme to New Extremes Trying to Suppress Criticism".
Based upon a review of your blog, which has unfortunately gone viral, please be advised that the contents of your blog are grossly inaccurate, factually incorrect, and were obviously written for no other purpose but to gain publicity for your blog, and to willfully damage the name and reputation of Dr. Patel.
First, there's the pain of being Streisanded, embodied in the phrase "has unfortunately gone viral." That's the sort of thing that happens when negative reviews are mysteriously injunctioned into the cornfield. Then there's the stupid accusation the Streisanded hurl at those who expose questionable -- and possibly fraudulent -- behavior: that it was motivated by a thirst for internet points. The first statement is merely sad. The second is mostly just tiresome.
The retraction demand goes on to claim that this is the first Mitul Patel has heard of the lawsuit (filed in his name) as well. While this would seem unlikely, Levy points out that a reputation management company could have created plausible deniability by filing a pro se lawsuit under Patel's name (its own kind of fraud) but without notifiying him that this is how it poorly and illegally handles its reputation-scrubbing duties. Unfortunately for Patel, whoever was hired to do this has done further damage to the dentist's reputation while presumably charging him for making things better.
Levy, of course, will not be retracting the post. His response to the demand letter points out that it's rather curious no disavowal was made until after the blog post "unfortunately went viral."
I was not persuaded, however, by your suggestion that I should "retract" the blog post or apologize for it. After all, you acknowledge that much of what I had to say on the blog was true. But I also have qualms about your assertion that, before my blog post was published, Patel had no knowledge of the lawsuit in Baltimore, for two reasons. First, in the course of investigating before I published my article, I obtained from Yelp copies of emails from Mitul Patel to Yelp, attaching the Baltimore court order and asking that Chan's Yelp comments be deleted. I attach the copies of these emails. Yelp has told me that Patel used [email address retracted], the same email address that [rest of sentence retracted]. Unless the email addresses were spoofed, those emails suggest that your client knew about the court order and was trying to take advantage of it.
Moreover, before I posted my article on the blog, I placed two telephone calls to Patel's dental clinic to try to speak with him about the lawsuit; I told his receptionist why I was calling. In addition, on Wednesday, August 17, I sent your client an email message mentioning his lawsuit against Chan and spelling out my concerns. Although he did not call me back and did not reply to the email, I trust he saw the messages before I published my article on Friday.
Levy goes on to point out that it seems strange someone or some company would pay a $165 filing fee to file a bogus defamation lawsuit for Patel without ever informing him it was doing so. The only motivation possible would be a shady reputation management company engaging in shadier tactics because Patel's paying it more than it's shelling out in filing fees. Levy has requested Patel provide him the name of anyone he's hired to do reputation cleanup work or perform SEO optimization on his behalf.
So, it's not just DMCA notices being abused to "protect" dishonest entities' reputations. It's also the legal system, where there's very little compelling lower level judges to spend a few minutes scrutinizing bare bones complaints (and injunction motions) handed to them by shady plaintiffs.
from the lead-attorney-pours-gasoline-on-own-head,-lights-match,-hurls-self-into-nearest dept
A Houston law firm has decided to make its mark on the world much in the same way a rogue house pet makes its mark on an expensive Oriental rug. The Tuan A. Khuu law firm has decided it has "no choice" but to sue a 20-year-old student suffering from two broken bones in her back following a collision with two vehicles -- one of them being the drunk driver who started the chain reaction.
Cai had never been in a major accident before, and she needed help from the attorneys while navigating insurance and proving her entitlement to damages. But when the attorneys came to her home, entered her bedroom (the attorneys maintain Cai's mother told them to go in) and then ignored her phone calls and emails in the days immediately after Cai signed the contract, she felt like hiring them was a mistake.
The hiring was a mistake. The firing was apparently also a mistake, especially after Cai headed to her Facebook page and Yelp to express her displeasure with Khuu. These negative reviews resulted in multiple calls and emails from the firm threatening legal action if she did not remove the "dispariging (sic)" review. The firm would have "no choice" but to do this, despite really having no legal or rational reason to do so.
Here's the entirety of the "dispariging" review the firm calls defamatory.
After 3 days, they didn't tell me anything about the doctor I needed to go to. I was in a lot of pain. Not only that, they didn't know where the hell my car was! And they came to my house and into my room to talk to me when I was sleeping in my underwear. Seriously, it's super unprofessional! ...I came in to the office to meet with my previous attorney, but he literally ran off.
Khuu attorney Keith Nguyen is the frontmouth for the firm and appears to regret nothing about suing a 20-year-old waitress who's trying to put herself through school. He claims Cai's review left out certain details and skewed others.
For example, when Cai says that her lawyer “literally ran off” when she showed up unannounced, Nguyen concedes he was on his way out the door, but took a moment to explain to her why there were liens on her insurance. The lawyers who went into her room had no idea she was in her underwear and say they were invited in, Nguyen explained. “It puts us in a bad light,” Nguyen said. “I said [to her], You can say that, but you need to add that we were invited. And she never did. She went ahead and wrote more bad things.”
It takes more than a difference in perspective to turn "bad things" into actionable defamatory statements. Nguyen is an attorney and presumably should know this. Nguyen also, presumably, is an inhabitant of this planet and partakes of the internet, so he should know what sort of effect is triggered by baseless legal bullying.
And, as part of the Khuu firm, he should also be aware that Cai isn't an anomaly. Even before the internet backlash kicked in the door of the firm's Yelp page (which now sports a warning from Yelp that it will remove positive/negative reviews that appear to be solely motivated by media coverage of the ongoing debacle), the law office wasn't exactly known for its stellar customer service. Meagan Flynn of the Houston Press points out that the Khuu law offices' Yelp pages are littered with negative reviews.
[G]ood reviews are hard to find, no matter which of the law firm's three locations you search. A guy named Han in Richardson, Texas, wrote, “Duped and filthy legal services. They trap you in their plan and dupe you out for their own goods. Stay away to protect yourself and your family.” A guy named Kevin from Austin: “They like to delay responses and make excuses for not returning calls. Incompetent and unreliable are the words I would use to describe their staff.” Charlie from Houston: “I went in for a 'free consultation' and it became a decision I would soon regret.”
In addition to the inevitable Streisanding, the Khuu law firm has also jabbed a stick into a hornet's nest of lawyers with low tolerance for bullying bullshit. So far, the law office's decision to sue a student for $200,000 has already attracted offers of assistance from Popehat's Ken White, First Amendment Badass (Texas Div.) Mark W. Bennett, and Scott Greenfield, whose undying curmudgeonliness (and undying AOL email address) are perfectly complemented by the number of fucks he gives about jabbing back at stupid attorneys. If this is just the initial response to the Khuu office legal threats, it's time to invest heavily in popcorn futures.
The immediate good news is that Lan Cai is now represented, pro bono, by Houston attorney Michael Fleming. Fleming hopes to flip this bogus lawsuit back on the Khuu law firm by using Texas' anti-SLAPP law -- the Texas Citizens Participation Act -- and extract $50,000 from the firm for the trouble it's caused. He also points out that the firm's reputation was pretty much an open sewage line well before Cai expressed her opinion, so it's unlikely the office can prove yet another negative review caused any actual damage to the firm itself.
from the zarrelli-school-of-reputation-management dept
Yelp -- both a frequent target of misguided lawsuits and the host of many, many targets of similarly-misguided lawsuits -- has instituted a nifty new flag that lets readers and reviewers know which businesses are issuing legal threats or filing lawsuits over negative reviews. The warning -- pictured below -- first showed up in May after Prestigious Pets went legal over a review it didn't care for.
Dayani, who says he gets plenty of positive and negative feedback on Yelp and is comfortable with both, says the claims by Rohs weren’t simply a negative review. He alleges her comments amount to defamation, and he sued Rohs two days after the review was posted. It’s an accusation the dentist has levied against at least four previous patients who have written negative reviews about his practice, according to a BuzzFeed News review of court records.
Dayani said false negative reviews like Rohs’ have harmed his practice over time. He said he laid off one part-time staff member because of a drop in business.
“[Rohs] accused me of malpractice by saying I didn’t diagnose her,” he said. “When you are publicly accusing someone of malpractice, you are damaging their reputation.”
This is an odd claim, considering Rohs never once uses the word malpractice in her review, or even alleges anything to that effect. She says she endured a very long wait to see Dr. Dayani and, when he finally did see her, he was "curt and dismissive."
Dr. Dayani was curt and dismissive, and seemed annoyed with the way I answered his questions. But he did seem to be genuinely interested in finding out what was causing my pain, and how it can be helped. However, it was an absurdly long wait. After about an HOUR, I was finally seen (my appt was at 11AM). Then after speaking with him for about 5-10 minutes, he left me for "just a second" to deal with another patient... I didn't see him for another half hour. Of the total TWO HOURS FIFTEEN MINUTES I was there, I think I was speaking to Dr. Dayani for about 30 minutes of that whole time. The rest was spent in his chair, without being offered a water or a magazine. And at the end of it all, he couldn't help determine what was bothering me. I left with a mouth full of pain and a recommendation to see my dentist for a possible cavity.
Four lawsuits against four unhappy patients is no way to run a business. Dayani may claim he only goes after those posting "false" information, but his summation of Rohs' complaint against him is so far off-base, it makes one wonder what he considers to be "false."
But more disturbing than his tendency to sue negative reviewers is the offer he made to Buzzfeed News, as pointed out by Adam Steinbaugh.
Dayani insists that he only goes after online reviewers who post false information. He offered BuzzFeed News the opportunity to visit his office and review records related to the cases where he has sued patients to prove their allegations are false. BuzzFeed News declined.
When a medical professional offers to potentially violate HIPAA privacy protections to protect his reputation, it's a pretty good sign the medical professional doesn't have much reputation left to burn. This indicates -- along with the lawsuits -- that Dr. Dayani isn't quite as receptive to criticism as he claims.
The upshot is that Yelp is now publicly calling out businesses who use legal threats and litigation to manage their reputations. It serves as a counterweight to those whose ratings might seem suspiciously high and serve as a warning to those who might be unhappy with their experience, but not quite ready to retain a lawyer.
The lawyer-plaintiff is Lenore Albert. Her Yelp page. She claims a former employee orchestrated a social media attack on her business, including posting fake disparaging reviews on her Yelp page plus this image (which she claims isn’t clearly demarcated as user content instead of Yelp-sourced content)...
Albert also claims that Yelp further screwed up her page when she refused to advertise with it. She sued Yelp for defamation, tortious interference and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The lower court granted Yelp’s anti-SLAPP motion. The appeals court affirmed.
After deciding that posted reviews were not commercial speech (which would not be covered by the state's anti-SLAPP statute) and of public interest (the plaintiff being a lawyer involved in foreclosure proceedings), the court moves on [PDF] to solidly stake out the extensive coverage of Section 230 protections for service providers.
Since Yelp is an internet service provider, it is immunized, under section 230 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, for defamation contained in any third party reviews on a Yelp page pertaining to a given business. The case law on this point is conclusive…
All doubt is removed when we examine two of the most extreme cases illustrating the immunizing effect of section 230, Barnes v. Yahoo!, Inc. (9th Cir. 2009) 570 F.3d 1096 (Barnes) and Carafano v. Metrosplash.com, Inc. (9th Cir. 2003) 339 F.3d 1119. These cases involved more than simple defamatory third party comments. Rather, in both cases third parties were able to use a website to cast the plaintiff in a decidedly negative false light. In Barnes, the ex-boyfriend of the plaintiff posted revenge porn on the website. The court held the website itself was still immune under section 230. (Barnes, supra, 570 F.3d at p. 1103 [to hold the website responsible would be to treat it like a publisher in contravention of section 230].) And in Carafano, the court held a dating website could not be held responsible for a third party’s virtual impersonation of an actress on the site. Of course, section 230 certainly does not immunize third parties who actually write defamatory posts to a website. (E.g., Bentley Reserve LP v. Papaliolios (2013) 218 Cal.App.4th 418 [former tenant could be liable for postings on Yelp about landlord]), but the website itself is unreachable.
The court also dismisses several other accusations by Albert, noting that Yelp has never solicited defamatory/misleading reviews and acts in good faith to remove defamatory or misleading postings when notified. It also points out that Albert's claim that Yelp itself creates misleading/defamatory reviews is not supported by any available evidence.
The plaintiff has asked for the opportunity to amend her complaint (not a bad idea, considering every allegation was rebuffed), but the court points out that the anti-SLAPP statute would be completely useless if complainants were allowed to rewrite their pleadings in light of a court's decision.
As this court recently pointed out, when a complaint is attacked by an anti-SLAPP motion, it cannot be amended so as to add or omit facts that would take the claim out of the protection of the anti-SLAPP statute. In the instant case, the plaintiff sued the ubiquitous business review internet service Yelp, alleging three causes of action which are unmeritorious. On appeal she posits she might be able to amend to allege other causes of action, at least two of which, unfair competition and false advertising, might arguably have merit given the Second District’s recent decision in Demetriades v. Yelp, Inc. (2014) 228 Cal.App.4th 294 (Demetriades) [suit based on Yelp’s statements about itself].) But whether they have merit cannot be reached in this case. Given the rule against amendments to add or omit facts in anti-SLAPP cases, we must affirm the judgment based on the three causes of action actually alleged.
While the decision does affirm what's already assumed about Section 230 protections, it's good to see these protections reaffirmed -- especially given recent highly-questionable decisions emanating from that area of the country. Yelp will recover the costs of its appeal, and if Albert still has money to blow, she's welcome to sue the people who posted the negative material, rather than the website hosting it.
Not sure what's going on in California, but it's been suddenly issuing a bunch of really bad rulings concerning Section 230 of the CDA (the most important law on the internet). As we've explained many times, Section 230 says that online services cannot be held liable for actions of their users (and also, importantly, that if those platforms do decide to moderate content in any way, that doesn't impact their protections from liability). This is massively important for protecting free speech online, because it means that platforms don't have to proactively monitor user behavior out of fear of legal liability and they don't feel the need to over-aggressively take down content to avoid being sued.
Over and over again the courts have interpreted Section 230 quite broadly to protect internet platforms. This has been good for free speech and good for the internet overall (and, yes, good for online companies, which is why some are so against Section 230). But, as we've been noting, Section 230 has been under attack in the past year or so, and all of a sudden courts seem to be chipping away at the protections of Section 230. Last week we wrote about a bad appeals court ruling that said Section 230 did not protect a website from being sued over failing to warn users of potential harm that could come from some users on the site. Then, earlier this week, we wrote about an even worse ruling in San Mateo Superior Court (just a block away from my office...) exempting publicity rights from Section 230.
And now, Eric Goldman points our attention to an even worse ruling coming out of California state's appeals court for the First Appellate district. In this ruling, the court determines that Yelp can be forced to delete reviews that the court found defamatory (though entirely based on a default judgment, where the defendant didn't show up in court). In previous cases most courts have found that even if content is found to be defamatory, a third party website cannot be forced to delete it, because of the pesky First Amendment.
In this case, the court doesn't care. The background of the case involves a lawyer, Dawn Hassell, who sued a former client, Ava Bird, who allegedly posted negative reviews of Hassell's work. Hassell sued, Bird ignored, and the court ruled for Hassell as a default judgment. As part of this it also ordered Yelp to remove the reviews. Yelp protested. The court then twists itself into all kinds of questionable knots to ignore both Section 230 and the First Amendment. The court first questions whether or not Yelp can even make the First Amendment argument, seeing as it's also claiming that it's not the author of the content in question. Of course, that totally misses the point: it's not necessarily just about the content in the review, but also Yelp's First Amendment rights in presenting content on its website.
In order to claim a First Amendment stake in this case, Yelp characterizes itself as a publisher or distributor. But, at other times Yelp portrays itself as more akin to an Internet bulletin board—a host to speakers, but in no way a speaker itself. Of course, Yelp may play different roles depending on the context. However, in this context it appears to us that the removal order does not treat Yelp as a publisher of Bird’s speech, but rather as the administrator of the forum that Bird utilized to publish her defamatory reviews.
But, uh, the administrator of a forum still has separate First Amendment rights in determining how they present things in their forum. That's kind of how it works. As Eric Goldman notes:
What the hell is an “administrator of the forum,” and what legal consequences attach to that status? We’re not talking about the free speech rights of a janitor with a mop. This case involves a curator of speech–and even if the curator is just “administrating,” telling a curator how to administrate raises significant speech interests that deserve more respect than this court gave it.
The court then suggests that the First Amendment doesn't apply because Yelp has no right to question a court.
To the extent Yelp has ever meant to contend that an injunction requiring Bird to remove defamatory statements from the Internet injuriously affects Yelp, we disagree. Yelp’s claimed interest in maintaining Web site as it deems appropriate does not include the right to second-guess a final court judgment which establishes that statements by a third party are defamatory and thus unprotected by the First Amendment.
Yikes! That of course, ignores the actual issue at play -- especially the fact that the finding of defamation was on default, rather than through an actual adversarial process.
But the really scary part is how the court gets around Section 230. Goldman refers to it as "jujitsu" and that's a pretty apt analogy:
Yelp argues the authority summarized above establishes that the removal order is void. We disagree. The removal order does not violate section 230 because it does not impose any liability on Yelp. In this defamation action, Hassell filed their complaint against Bird, not Yelp; obtained a default judgment against Bird, not Yelp; and was awarded damages and injunctive relief against Bird, not Yelp.
Okay... but then it's ordering Yelp to remove the reviews, despite being a non-party. And if Yelp does not remove the reviews, then it's in contempt of court, which means that yes, the court is absolutely applying liability. But, no, says the court, because [reasons].
If an injunction is itself a form of liability, that liability was imposed on Bird, not Yelp. Violating the injunction or the removal order associated with it could potentially trigger a different type of liability which implicates the contempt power of the court.
Got that. It's not liability because it's "a different type of liability." WHAT?!? Where in the law does it say that "a different type of liability" (with no clear definition) is allowed? The court clarifies by muddying the waters some more:
In our opinion, sanctioning Yelp for violating a court order would not implicate section 230 at all; it would not impose liability on Yelp as a publisher or distributor of third party content.
This makes no sense at all.
Separately, the court keeps relying on the fact that Yelp itself was not sued by Hassell, and that all other cases involved service providers that were parties to the case. But that leads to ridiculous results:
As we have pointed out, Hassell did not allege any cause of action seeking to hold Yelp liable for Bird’s tort. The removal order simply sought to control the perpetuation of judicially declared defamatory statements. For this reason, Yelp seriously understates the significance of the fact that Hassell obtained a judgment which establishes that three reviews Bird posted on Yelp.com are defamatory as a matter of law, and which includes an injunction enjoining Bird from repeating those three reviews on Yelp.com. Indeed, that injunction is a key distinction between this case and the CDA cases that Yelp has cited, all of which involved allegations of defamatory conduct by a third party, and not a judicial determination that defamatory statements had, in fact, been made by such third party on the Internet service provider’s Web site.
But under that standard, the court has just offered up a huge hole to avoid Section 230: just don't name the service provider, and then you can force the service provider to take down the content. If that stands, very bad things will happen as a result. As Goldman points out in response to this, the court is simply wrong:
So the court is flat-out wrong. While I believe it’s correct that none of the cases were posed as contempt proceedings, the actions in both Blockowicz and Giordano also came after lower court findings of defamation. And in any case, WTF? Is the court saying that Section 230 preempts a direct lawsuit against a UGC site seeking injunctive relief, but it’s totally OK to reach the same result by not naming the UGC site in the lawsuit and then enforcing an injunction via contempt proceedings?
Goldman goes on to note how this ruling will create all kinds of mischief opportunities:
Step 1: sue the content poster for defamation in California state court. Do not sue the UGC site because (a) they are immune under Section 230, or (b) they might decide to fight substantively.
Step 2: take advantage of loose service of process rules and or otherwise hope the poster doesn’t appear in the case. For example, non-California residents aren’t likely to fight in a California court even if they get notice.
Step 3: get a default judgment finding defamation. If the user does make an appearance, a stipulated judgment with the user could reach the same result.
Step 4: seek an injunction requiring removal by the UGC site. Once the judge accepts the service of process and concludes the defendant didn’t show, the judge will probably do just about whatever the plaintiff asks. With the default judgment, the plaintiff can then use the coercive effect of contempt to force the UGC site to remove the content so long as the UGC site is under California’s jurisdictional reach–which most UGC sites are.
Voila! A right to be forgotten in the US, despite the First Amendment and Section 230.
As an added bonus, in the same lawsuit, the plaintiff can target multiple items of unwanted content by claiming it’s also written by the defendant or someone working in concert with the defendant. For example, I don’t believe it was ever confirmed that Birdzeye and JD are the same person, but consistent with the less-stringent approach deployed by judges when faced with default proceedings, the court treats both reviews as if the author(s) of the opinions was in court. If, in fact, JD is a different person, then Hassell successfully scrubbed JD’s content without ever suing the actual author or serving proper notice on the author. As you can see, there’s a great collateral damage potential here.
Goldman also warns that this ruling may not be easy to overturn. Yelp can (and should) appeal to the state Supreme Court, but there's no guarantee it will take the case. There are legislative solutions, but those are unlikely as well. But for the time being, this ruling is a ticking time bomb. It can and will be abused. We see so many attempts to censor content by abusing copyright law, and now California has given people a playbook for how to abuse defamation law to do the same thing.
A Dallas pet-sitting company had a small problem. HAD. But it approached it badly and now it has a much larger one.
It tried to enforce a "non-disparagement" clause to silence an unhappy customer. Copied nearly word-for-word from what is now known as "KlearGear boilerplate," the clause forbade customers from uttering a discouraging word under pain of whatever Prestigious Pets might come up with (including wholly made-up damages on top of legal fees, etc.), and awarded itself "sole discretion" to determine what words/actions would trigger the clause.
An unhappy couple posted a review to Yelp with some mild criticisms of the company -- the worst of it being that the "independent contractor" the company provided had not taken care of the customer's fish particularly well and that Prestigious Pets was difficult to get ahold of.
First, the company's legal rep sent a letter to the customers disputing every claim made in the Yelp review and informing them that their refusal to discuss the issues with Prestigious Pets "violated the spirit" of its bogus non-disparagement clause.
Then it filed a claim for $6,766 against the couple in small claims court, listing everything from "lost work opportunities" to "libelous and slandurous [sic] harm" to violation of the non-disparagement clause. This action produced completely predictable results. The couple aired their grievances even more publicly as the story of Prestigious Pets' clause and retaliatory legal actions began to make its way from local news stations to nationally-read websites.
The couple retained counsel to file an anti-SLAPP motion against the company's claims. But Prestigious Pets, stung by the backlash to its attempted enforcement of its clause, withdrew its small claims court filing (instantly mooting the anti-SLAPP motion) and filed a million dollar lawsuit instead.
The company claims that the relief in its new lawsuit is justified because its business dried up in the face of the publicity about its lawsuit, and it brought new claims against Robert Duchouquette because he had appeared in media interviews where he objected to having been sued in the first place. But at this point, the Duchouquettes were not only defendants in a lawsuit for a potentially bankrupting amount of damages, but they had to consider the significant up-front expense of having to pay their lawyers for the hourly expense of defending themselves against a SLAPP suit – the small claims suit alone had subjected them to a ten thousand dollar legal bill.
The statement made by the Duchouquettes that seems to most offend the pet sitting company deals with simple facts. The allegations by Prestigious Pets contain phrases never used by the Duchouquettes ("[T]he Duchouquettes have made it an ongoing campaign to tell the world that Prestigious Pets and Kalle almost killed their fish or at least potentially harmed it (without any evidence to support such a claim)...") and indisputable facts: there was excess food on the bottom of the aquarium, the water was cloudy, and overfeeding is almost always bad for fish, no matter what breed.
The couple's motion to dismiss [PDF] attacks Prestigious Pets' use of a non-disparagement clause that gives the company the "right" to severely limit its customers' speech.
Prestigious Pets’ standard contract—which includes a non-disparagement clause—is shockingly one-sided. It strips consumers of their fundamental rights of free speech, arguably going so far as to even bar consumer actions protected by law such as filing a lawsuit in response to egregious wrongdoing by the company. It provides for the recovery of attorneys’ fees—only against the consumer. It sets Prestigious Pets up as the sole judge and jury to determine whether the non-disparagement clause has been violated. Perhaps worst of all, the contract even goes beyond simply barring speech that injures Prestigious Pets, and actually seeks to bar “any action” that in any way—in Prestigious Pets’ sole estimation—harms the company.
What's really bizarre about this entire debacle is that Prestigious Pets tried to distance itself from this non-disparagement clause by claiming it was inserted by "professionals" who assisted with crafting the company's service agreement. This bizarre post-blowup stiffarm attempts to imply the company is somehow blameless, if not entirely powerless to halt the events set in motion by a service agreement the company apparently had no direct input in compiling. Having such a clause in a service agreement is just stupid. Trying to enforce it to shut up critics is suicide. And, as is noted by Levy, Prestigious Pets has already tried to use the clause against another unhappy customer.
There appears to be almost no chance this lawsuit will survive a motion to dismiss. But if anyone's going to learn what needs to be learned from this experience, the anti-SLAPP motion will also need to be granted, along with a fee shift that compensates these customers for enduring a particularly inept defamation suit.
Burned by negative reviews, some health providers are casting their patients' privacy aside and sharing intimate details online as they try to rebut criticism.
In the course of these arguments -- which have spilled out publicly on ratings sites like Yelp -- doctors, dentists, chiropractors and massage therapists, among others, have divulged details of patients' diagnoses, treatments and idiosyncrasies.
One Washington state dentist turned the tables on a patient who blamed him for the loss of a molar: "Due to your clenching and grinding habit, this is not the first molar tooth you have lost due to a fractured root," he wrote. "This tooth is no different."
In California, a chiropractor pushed back against a mother's claims that he misdiagnosed her daughter with scoliosis. "You brought your daughter in for the exam in early March 2014," he wrote. "The exam identified one or more of the signs I mentioned above for scoliosis. I absolutely recommended an x-ray to determine if this condition existed; this x-ray was at no additional cost to you."
And a California dentist scolded a patient who accused him of misdiagnosing her. "I looked very closely at your radiographs and it was obvious that you have cavities and gum disease that your other dentist has overlooked. ... You can live in a world of denial and simply believe what you want to hear from your other dentist or make an educated and informed decision."
Health professionals are adapting to a harsh reality in which consumers rate them on sites like Yelp, Vitals and RateMDs much as they do restaurants, hotels and spas. The vast majority of reviews are positive. But in trying to respond to negative ones, some providers appear to be violating the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the federal patient privacy law known as HIPAA. The law forbids them from disclosing any patient health information without permission.
Yelp has given ProPublica unprecedented access to its trove of public reviews -- more than 1.7 million in all -- allowing us to search them by keyword. Using a tool developed by the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering, we identified more than 3,500 one-star reviews (the lowest) in which patients mention privacy or HIPAA. In dozens of instances, responses to complaints about medical care turned into disputes over patient privacy.
The patients affected say they've been doubly injured -- first by poor service or care and then by the disclosure of information they considered private.
The shock of exposure can be effective, prompting patients to back off.
"I posted a negative review" on Yelp, a client of a California dentist wrote in 2013. "After that, she posted a response with details that included my personal dental information. … I removed my review to protect my medical privacy."
The consumer complained to the Office for Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which enforces HIPAA. The office warned the dentist about posting personal information in response to Yelp reviews. It is currently investigating a New York dentist for divulging personal information about a patient who complained about her care, according to a letter reviewed by ProPublica.
The office couldn't say how many complaints it has received in this area because it doesn't track complaints this way. ProPublica has previously reported about the agency's historic inability to analyze its complaints and identify repeat HIPAA violators.
Deven McGraw, the office's deputy director of health information privacy, said health professionals responding to online reviews can speak generally about the way they treat patients but must have permission to discuss individual cases. Just because patients have rated their health provider publicly doesn't give their health provider permission to rate them in return.
"If the complaint is about poor patient care, they can come back and say, 'I provide all of my patients with good patient care' and 'I've been reviewed in other contexts and have good reviews,' " McGraw said. But they can't "take those accusations on individually by the patient."
McGraw pointed to a 2013 case out of California in which a hospital was fined $275,000 for disclosing information about a patient to the media without permission, allegedly in retaliation for the patient complaining to the media about the hospital.
Yelp's senior director of litigation, Aaron Schur, said most reviews of doctors and dentists aren't about the actual health care delivered but rather their office wait, the front office staff, billing procedures or bedside manner. Many health providers are careful and appropriate in responding to online reviews, encouraging patients to contact them offline or apologizing for any perceived slights. Some don't respond at all.
"There's certainly ways to respond to reviews that don't implicate HIPAA," Schur said.
In 2012, University of Utah Health Care in Salt Lake City was the first hospital system in the country to post patient reviews and comments online. The system, which had to overcome doctors' resistance to being rated, found positive comments far outnumbered negative ones.
"If you whitewash comments, if you only put those that are highly positive, the public is very savvy and will consider that to be only advertising," said Thomas Miller, chief medical officer for the University of Utah Hospitals and Clinics.
Unlike Yelp, the University of Utah does not allow comments about a doctor's medical competency, and it does not allow physicians to respond to comments.
In discussing their battles over online reviews, patients said they'd turned to ratings sites for closure and in the hope that their experiences would help others seeking care. Their providers' responses, however, left them with a lingering sense of lost trust.
Angela Grijalva brought her then 12-year-old daughter to Maximize Chiropractic in Sacramento, Calif., a couple years ago for an exam. In a one-star review on Yelp, Grijalva alleged that chiropractor Tim Nicholl led her daughter to "believe she had scoliosis and urgently needed x-rays, which could be performed at her next appointment. … My daughter cried all night and had a tough time concentrating at school."
But it turned out her daughter did not have scoliosis, Grijalva wrote. She encouraged parents to stay away from the office.
Nicholl replied on Yelp, acknowledging that Grijalva's daughter was a patient (a disclosure that is not allowed under HIPAA) and discussing the procedures he performed on her and her condition, though he said he could not disclose specifics of the diagnosis "due to privacy and patient confidentiality."
"The next day you brought your daughter back in for a verbal review of the x-rays and I informed you that the x-rays had identified some issues, but the good news was that your daughter did not have scoliosis, great news!" he recounted. "I proceeded to adjust your daughter and the adjustment went very well, as did the entire appointment; you made no mention of a 'misdiagnosis' or any other concern."
In an interview, Grijalva said Nicholl's response "violated my daughter and her privacy."
"I wouldn't want another parent, another child to go through what my daughter went through: the panic, the stress, the fear," she added.
Nicholl declined a request for comment. "It just doesn't seem like this is worth my time," he said. His practice has mixed reviews on Yelp, but more positive than negative.
A few years ago, Marisa Speed posted a review of North Valley Plastic Surgery in Phoenix after her then–3-year-old son received stitches there for a gash on his chin. "Half-way through the procedure, the doctor seemed flustered with my crying child. ...," she wrote. "At this point the doctor was more upset and he ended up throwing the instruments to the floor. I understand that dealing with kids requires extra effort, but if you don't like to do it, don't even welcome them."
An employee named Chase replied on the business's behalf: "This patient presented in an agitated and uncontrollable state. Despite our best efforts, this patient was screaming, crying, inconsolable, and a danger to both himself and to our staff. As any parent that has raised a young boy knows, they have the strength to cause harm."
Speed and her husband complained to the Office for Civil Rights. "You may wish to remove any specific information about current or former patients from your Web-blog," the Office for Civil Rights wrote in an October 2013 letter to the surgery center.
In an email, a representative of the surgery center declined to comment. "Everyone that was directly involved in the incident no longer works here. The nurse on this case left a year ago, the surgeon in the case retired last month, and the administrator left a few years ago," he wrote.
Reviews of North Valley Plastic Surgery are mixed on Yelp.
Health providers have tried a host of ways to try to combat negative reviews. Some have sued their patients, attracting a torrent of attention but scoring few, if any, legal successes. Others have begged patients to remove their complaints.
Jeffrey Segal, a one-time critic of review sites, now says doctors need to embrace them. Beginning in 2007, Segal's company, Medical Justice, crafted contracts that health providers could give to patients asking them to sign over the copyright to any reviews, which allowed providers to demand that negative ones be removed. But after a lawsuit, Medical Justice stopped recommending the contracts in 2011.
Segal said he has come to believe reviews are valuable and that providers should encourage patients who are satisfied to post positive reviews and should respond -- carefully -- to negative ones.
"For doctors who get bent out of shape to get rid of negative reviews, it's a denominator problem," he said. "If they only have three reviews and two are negative, the denominator is the problem. ... If you can figure out a way to cultivate reviews from hundreds of patients rather than a few patients, the problem is solved."
We've noted how the FCC's latest net neutrality rules do a lot of things right, but they failed to seriously address zero rating or broadband usage caps, opening the door to ISPs violently abusing net neutrality -- just as long as they're relatively clever about it. And plenty of companies have been walking right through that open door. Both Verizon and Comcast for example now exempt their own streaming services from these caps, giving them an unfair leg up in the marketplace. AT&T meanwhile is now using usage caps to force customers to subscribe to TV services if they want to enjoy unlimited data.
In each instance you've got companies using usage caps for clear anti-competitive advantage, while industry-associated think tanks push misleading studies and news outlet editorials claiming that zero rating's a great boon to consumers and innovation alike.
The FCC's net neutrality rules don't ban usage caps or zero rating, unlike rules in Chile, Slovenia, Japan, India, Norway and The Netherlands. The FCC did however state that the agency would examine such practices on a "case by case" basis under the "general conduct" portion of the rules. But so far, that has consisted of closed door meetings and a casual, informal letter sent to a handful of carriers as part of what the FCC says is an "information exercise," not a formal inquiry.
But in a letter sent to FCC Commissioners (pdf) this week, a coalition of companies including Yelp, Vimeo, Foursquare, Kickstarter, Medium, Mozilla and Reddit have urged the agency to launch a more formal -- but also transparent -- probe of ISP behavior on this front:
"Zero rating profoundly affects Internet users' choices. Giving ISPs the power to favor some sites or services over others would let ISPs pick winners and losers online—precisely what the Open Internet rules exist to prevent...Given how many stakeholders participated in the process to make these rules, including nearly 4 million members of the public, it would be unacceptable not to seek and incorporate broad input and expertise at this critical stage."
Given the FCC's decision to ban usage caps at Charter as a merger condition, the agency is clearly aware of the threat zero rating and caps pose to a healthy Internet. It's possible the FCC is waiting for the courts to settle the broadband industry's lawsuit against the FCC, which could gut some or all of the net neutrality rules. But it's also entirely possible that the FCC does nothing. Usage caps are a glorified price hike, and even in its latest more consumer friendly iteration, the FCC has historically been afraid to so much as even acknowledge high prices are a problem in the sector.
Things have been muddied further by T-Mobile's Binge On program, which gives users the illusion of "free data" by setting arbitrary usage caps, then exempting the biggest video services from usage caps. And while many consumers applaud the idea, even T-Mobile's implementation sets a potentially dangerous precedent in that it fails to whitelist smaller video providers and non-profits -- most of which have no idea they're even being discriminated against. There's a contingent at the FCC and elsewhere that believes efforts like this are a positive example of "creative pricing experimentation."
Either way it's increasingly clear that the FCC needs to take some public position on the subject as ISPs continue to test the agency's murky boundaries to the detriment of users and small companies alike. Should the FCC win its court case, pressure will grow exponentially for the FCC to actually put its money where its mouth is -- and put the rules so many people fought for to actual use.
from the or,-how-to-make-one-opinion-REALLY-MATTER dept
An anti-SLAPP win has just been handed down in Nevada, one of the few states with a strong anti-SLAPP law. At the center of the failed defamation lawsuit is (you guessed it) a negative review of a business posted at Yelp.
Pamela Boling (represented by Marc Randazza) hired IQTaxx to prepare her taxes, including the filing of a hardship notice. IQTaxx failed to do so. Boling tried to speak to the company about its failure to file the hardship paperwork, but after several attempts she was routed to a third-party number which informed her that the tax preparer's number was no longer in service.
Boling turned to Yelp and left a review detailing her experience with the company. Her review was headlined "This is MALPRACTICE!" Shortly thereafter, IQTaxx sent a cease-and-desist to Boling over her "exaggerated emotional rant review" -- wording it should have known would be fatal to its claims of defamation. Defamation does not cover exaggerations or emotional rants, but rather false statements purporting to be facts.
The court finds the company has failed to satisfy both prongs of Nevada's anti-SLAPP test. Not only that, but it has failed in pretty much all respects when it comes to pursuing a libel suit.
There is no dispute that Yelp is a well-known public forum. and Defendant has provided evidence that her allegedly defamatory statements were not made with knowledge of their falsity. Plaintiff failed to provide evidence tending to show that Defendant knew her statements were false when she made them. Defendant thus made the statements at issue in good faith under NRS 41.637(4). Defendant proved by a preponderance of the evidence that her statements were on a matter of public interest, in a public forum, and were made without knowledge of their falsity.
As for the second prong -- prevailing on the suit's merits -- the court similarly finds almost nothing to work with.
Plaintiff has failed to meet its burden under NRS 41.660(3)(b). Statements of opinion and rhetorical hyperbole are not actionable, as Supreme Court precedent establishes that "there is no such thing as a false idea. However pernicious an opinion may seem, we depend for its correction not on the conscience of judges and juries but on the competition of other ideas." Gertz v. Robert Welch, 418 US. 323, 339-40 (1974).
In other words, the Supreme Court has said the best defense against speech one doesn't like is more speech, not lawsuits.
The court adds that the context of the disputed assertions also plays a significant part in its interpretation.
Context is vitally important in determining whether a reasonable person is likely to view a statement as one of fact, or one of protected opinion or rhetorical hyperbole. The context of Defendant's statements is Yelp, a well-known online forum for consumer reviews. The Internet is the modern equivalent of the soapbox on the sidewalk, and web sites such as Yelp are the type of public forum that is protected under the First Amendment.
The public has become accustomed to seeing fiery rhetoric on online fora, and courts recognize that this context makes it less likely that a reader will interpret statements published in such places as actionable statements of fact.
The court then notes that IQTaxx's sole claim basically doomed its lawsuit from the start.
Plaintiff only asserts that the statement "This is MALPRACTICE!" is defamatory, meaning that only Defendant's September 11, 2015 Yelp review is properly considered in determining whether Plaintiff has met its burden. The statement "This is MALPRACTICE!" with the term "malpractice" in all capital letters and with an exclamation mark, in the context of a Yelp review, is a protected statement of rhetorical hyperbole that cannot make out a claim for defamation.
Defendant's statements are protected statements of emotional hyperbolic opinion. The average Yelp user would not read the statement "This is MALPRACTICE!" with the central term in all capital letters and with an exclamation mark as a carefully considered legal opinion.
IQTaxx must now pay Boling $1,000 in statutory damages, and the person it tried to sue in shutting up can also go after it for legal fees. The tax preparer has several options available to address the negative review, but chose the one that hurt it the most. Rather than just being known for questionable customer service, the company is now known for suing critics and losing badly.