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Online Business Defamation and Public Forum Websites — Part II

By on October 9, 2017

            Part I of this series on Online Business Defamation and Public Forum Websites briefly touched on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (“Section 230”), a federal law that limits whom businesses can hold legally responsible for defamatory postings.   As previously discussed, Courts have consistently interpreted Section 230 as providing close to blanket immunity to public forum websites where the content in question is generated by a third party.  Thus, as a practical matter, claims against the Googles, Yelps and Facebooks of the world face significant legal barriers and businesses are currently better served by focusing on claims against the actual author of the posted defamatory comments, rather than the forum on which the comments were published.

            Section 230 was codified as law in 1996, right as the modern Internet came into being. It has not faced significant alteration since, even though the Internet landscape of today bears little, if any, resemblance to the landscape of 1996.  In no uncertain terms, Section 230 states, “[n]o provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”  It is that language that has afforded modern websites (and their affiliated companies) enormous legal protections- legal protections that many of those same websites  (and affiliated companies) have lobbied extensively to keep in place as they have allowed the companies to flourish and have fostered an Internet environment where free speech is clearly protected.

            Section 230, however, has recently come under intense public scrutiny due to its rigid application creating harsh legal realities and unintended consequences, specifically with regard to the cover Section 230 has provided websites that host user-generated content that promotes and facilitates illegal activity.  Public pressure is currently mounting in favor of lessening the protection Section 230 provides to such websites (and companies) and a hotly contested bill has been introduced in Congress that would accomplish just that.  Thus, there is real potential that the momentum exists to shift the Section 230 paradigm away from the historically stringent protections afforded to companies and websites and toward allowing some form of recourse against pubic forum websites for offending hosted-content.  Regardless of the merits of such potential shift, such reform stands to have a significant impact on the potential viability of future online defamation claims.  Accordingly, business owners are well-advised to monitor the changing landscape carefully.  Should you find your business interests harmed by false or misleading statements on the Internet, consult with an attorney concerning the potential rights and remedies available to you.