from the 'viewed-in-the-light-most-favorable-to-ignoring-tons-of-precedent...' dept
Enigma Software joined the long line of aggrieved companies who feel that legal threats and questionable lawsuits are the best form of reputation management. It sued BleepingComputer over a "defamatory review" -- which was actually just a forum post by a member that detailed (with supporting links) its questionable SpyHunter software and its "rogue tactics" over the years.
In addition to the defamation claims, Enigma Software also argued that BleepingComputer only did this to steer site readers towards its own products, alleging a handful of Lanham Act violations.
Unfortunately, Enigma Software's dubious claims have survived a motion to dismiss by BleepingComputer, thanks to some similarly dubious reasoning [PDF] by the judge presiding over the case. Not only are the Lanham Act claims given far too much credence (thanks to some twisted judicial analysis that assumes that because trademark is a part of the Lanham Act, false advertising claims under the Lanham Act are also intellectual property claims, exempt from Section 230 of the CDA), but the court's decision to allow the lawsuit to process also punches a few more holes in Section 230 protections.
Because the author of the post was a third-party contributor, BleepingComputer should not have been held responsible for the content of the post. However, the court appears to be bothered that the user in question was referred to as a "staff member" by BleepingComputer, even if it was actually a volunteer administrative post and BleepingComputer did not directly control the content of the user's contributions.
Eric Goldman, in his analysis of the decision, points out that BleepingComputer could have done a better job delineating between actual site administrators and those just helping out, along with providing more comprehensive disclaimers about "superusers" and their contributions to the site.
So what did Bleeping do wrong? In retrospect, calling super-users “staff members” is probably not the best titling. At least to this judge, “staff” sounds too much like “employee.” The court also says that site disclosures saying super-users could be “trusted to give correct…answers” meant that Bleeping communicated that these super-users were authorized to post on its behalf. I don’t see that interpretation of the disclosure at all, but it’s also easy to imagine rewording Bleeping’s disclosures to downgrade the risks. For example, Bleeping could make disclosures that super-users had been selected because of their consistently reliable advice, but they remain independent and fallible.
That being said, the court's decision does more damage to Section 230 protections by holding websites responsible for the content of certain third-party posts. This determination may be only temporary and fall apart as the lawsuit proceeds, but it still gives those filing questionable lawsuits a glimmer of hope that their dubious claims might survive to fight another day. If nothing else, the assertions made by the court will keep the lawyers fed.
Still, I’m irritated by the court’s glossy handling of the Section 230 super-user precedent. I’m also frustrated by the court’s insensitivity to how this ruling undermines Section 230. It green-lights plaintiffs to allege that a user was the site’s implied agent to survive a Section 230 motion to dismiss, even if those allegations fail later in the case. Everyone loses (except the lawyers, of course) when unmeritorious cases get past a Section 230 motion to dismiss.
Other issues present themselves as well in this decision. The statute of limitations of defamation (one year) gets an extension, thanks to the court considering certain links to older posts as "republication," flying in the face of several other decisions on the same topic. (It actually doesn't say quite as much, but refuses to "resolve the issue" at this point.)
And, on the subject of linking to content to support claims made in an allegedly defamatory post, the court seems to find that something done to deter claims of defamation is actually just the creation of a defamatory echo chamber.
The court says this conclusion is reinforced by Bleeping’s and Quietman7’s self-laudatory statements about their credibility and expertise. Thus, the court distinguishes the recent trend of judges presuming that readers don’t take online comments seriously (a trend partially attributable to the NY Sandals case). Also, “[t]he manner of Quietman7’s written presentation—one using footnotes and citations—conveyed further that his advice was based on an ‘investigation’ of verifiable facts.” (Contrast the cases holding that linking to source materials can reduce defamation liability). The court disregards Quietman7’s qualifier statements “[m]y personal recommendation” and “[i]n my opinion.”
One of the most infuriating assertions made in this decision is that Enigma Software is still, somehow, a private entity that only needs to make the most minimal of damage assertions to continue pursuing this lawsuit.
The court rejects Bleeping’s argument that Enigma is a limited-purpose public figure (which would require Enigma to allege facts showing Bleeping had actual malice) because Enigma’s complaint “does not allege any facts suggesting that ESG has taken a public position on the integrity of its business practices or the quality of its products.” FFS. While focusing on the complaint’s four corners is technically permissible under the legal standards for a motion to dismiss, the judge is allowed to take judicial notice of public statements where Enigma–LIKE EVERY OTHER BUSINESS IN THE UNIVERSE SINCE THE BEGINNING OF TIME–says it does a great job.
While this is not a decision in favor of one party or another, the judge's determinations make it clear that BleepingComputer will be paying a whole lot more in legal fees before this lawsuit (hopefully) is resolved in its favor. Enigma's claims -- not including the severely-stretched "unfair competition" assertions -- were so threadbare as to be almost nonexistent. Its defamation accusations included words not actually used in the post and some complete rewriting of certain post sentences in order to shore up its bogus claims.
Goldman's very thorough assessment of the decision does find that BleepingComputer could have done a few things in a smarter way to avoid potential Section 230 entanglements, but his overall take is that a decent anti-SLAPP law would have gone a long way towards making this lawsuit disappear before dragging the defendants into expensive discovery proceedings. While he grants that motions to dismiss are viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party (Enigma Software), the court here has gone out of its way to keep a highly-questionable defamation lawsuit alive -- and has done damage to Section 230 protections in doing so.