Remaining section of Communications Decency Act of 1996 facing legal challenge

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(c) PROTECTION FOR `GOOD SAMARITAN' BLOCKING AND SCREENING OF OFFENSIVE MATERIAL-

(1) TREATMENT OF PUBLISHER OR SPEAKER- No 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.

This language has been used by numerous attorneys to discourage outraged people from suing various forum operators for

statements made by third parties. The intent of the exclusion was to protect large services such as America Online and Prodigy (who were both sued prior to 1996) from an endless series of libel challenges. But the act does exempt the exclusion from superceding existing civil and criminal laws.

That's where the latest case involving a lawyer who is suing dontdatehimgirl.com becomes interesting and is newsworthy to people in the online marketing industries. The Web site in question was created for women to post negative information about men whom they have dated and/or had relationships with. The attorney in question claims that several negative comments made about him are false. He is suing both the commenters and the forum operator.

Her attorney says she is exempted from civil litigation because of the CDA. However, the intent behind CDA was that any forum operator could not actively monitor content on a continual basis and therefore should not be held responsible for content. But the terms of service for the Web site make several stipulations:

Do not post the names of alleged cheating women on this website! The names will automatically be deleted!

Keep it clean and respectful! No profanity! It will be deleted from the profile!

We do not remove profiles of the men in our database!

Content Monitors reserve the right to remove postings that violate these rules. is monitored for content 24 hours a day. Postings deemed to have violated these rules will be removed.

This language implies strong, close editorial control -- control not exercised by an anonymous service provider, but rather control exercised by an editorial authority. Normally, that kind of direct supervision of content qualifies a Web site operator as a publisher and not merely as a service provider. In other words, if AOL or Prodigy were to review and accept for distribution through their service knowingly false statements, they could be held liable as publishers rather than exempted as service providers because they exercised editorial review and control.

Furthermore, the Web site in question was launched in 2006. In January of this year, President Bush signed into law House Resolution 109-3402 (see Section 113), which amended the 1934 Communications Law to include Cyberstalking as a federal crime, punishable by up to 2 years imprisonment and/or fines. This Cyberstalking provision has been questioned by legal observers but (so far as I know) not yet challenged in court.

While I don't have any knowledge of the specific challenges the attorney in question will present in court, if he can show that the forum operator was exercising editorial review and control and that therefore she was acting as a publisher and not merely as a service provider, she may not have any clear-cut protection under the CDA. Furthermore, if he can show that she or her forum users were engaging in Cyberstalking activities (and the policy affirming that profiles will not be removed implies that knowingly false profiles may be left in place by editorial review), they would be guilty of committing a felony and therefore she would not be protected by the CDA.

When you are reviewing client content that may be negative or damaging to a third party, be very careful about involving yourself in the editorial process. This latest challenge to the CDA may not survive very long. On the other hand, because of the terms of service on the site and because of changes in the law defining Cyberstalkng as a felony, the forum operator may not have the ironclad protection she and her attorney believe she does.

This case should be closely watched, especially by the various SEO forum and blog operators who have repeatedly allowed people to harangue and harass third parties on their sites. The ramifications, if the attorney wins, could be far-reaching for many of us.




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