Locksmith Locked Out By Communications Decency Act

The Communications Decency Act (“CDA”) provides broad immunity for “providers of interactive computer services.”  In essence, if an internet service provider falls within certain parameters, it is entitled to immunity against certain claims of liability brought under state law.  Last month, the Ninth Circuit again considered the breadth of such immunity in the case, Kimzey v. Yelp!.

As many readers may know, Yelp is a website that allows customers to “rate” their experience with a particular store, restaurant or service provider.  The reviewing customer can also leave a detailed review in connection with their 1-5 star rating.  Yelp then aggregates all customer reviews into a single rating and this information may be found not only on Yelp’s website, but also on other search engine websites like Google.

The plaintiff, Douglas Kimzey, operated a locksmith shop in the Washington area.  The Ninth Circuit’s opinion relates that he was subject to a one-star review by a purported customer, “Sarah K,”  whose review began, “THIS WAS BY FAR THE WORST EXPERIENCE I HAVE EVER ENCOUNTERED WITH A LOCKSMITH.”  It did not get much better from there.

Rather than suing the customer for posting the offending review, Kimzey sued Yelp instead.  In an attempt to get around the immunity provisions set forth in the CDA, Kimzey alleged two novel theories: (1) that Yelp, by creating its review and star-rating system in effect “created the content” to subject it to liability;  and (2) by allegedly “republishing” the negative review through advertisements and/or search engines, Yelp was liable as the publisher of the negative review.  The District Court granted Yelp’s motion to dismiss on the ground that it was immune from such liability under the CDA.

The Ninth Circuit began by reviewing the immunity provision in the CDA, Section 230(c)(1), which provides protection from liability only to “(1) a provider or user of an interactive computer service; (2) whom a plaintiff seeks to treat under a state law cause of action as a publisher or speaker; (3) of information provided by another information content provider.”  The Ninth Circuit said that it was easy to conclude that Yelp was a provider of “an interactive computer service” given that such term should be interpreted “expansively” under the CDA.  In fact, the Ninth Circuit recognized that in today’s cyberworld, “the most common interactive computer services are websites,” such as Yelp.  The Ninth Circuit continued by finding that it was clear that Kimzey’s claims against Yelp were “premised on Yelp’s publication of Sarah K’s statements and start rating.”

In turning to the gist of Kimzey’s complaint, the Ninth Circuit reasoned that, “a careful reading of the complaint reveals that Kimzey never specifically alleged that Yelp authorized or created the content of the statements posted under the aegis of Sarah K, but rather that Yelp adopted them from another website and transformed them into its own stylized promotions on Yelp and Google.”  The Ninth Circuit found, without any difficulty, that such “threadbare allegations of fabrication of statements are implausible on their face and are insufficient to avoid immunity under the CDA.”  In essence, the Ninth Circuit found that such artful pleading as that engaged in by Kimzey would allow other plaintiffs to avoid the broad immunity protections provided by the CDA.

The Ninth Circuit reasoned that Congress in enabling immunity from liability wanted to protect the purpose of the internet which was to further the “free exchange of information and ideas.” Further, allowing a plaintiff to plead around the immunity statute would eviscerate Congress’ purpose in furthering this purpose.

Turning to the next part of Kimzey’s complaint, the Ninth Circuit noted that Kimzey alleged that Yelp designed and created the signature star-rating system and thereby served as the “author” of the one-star rating given by Sarah K.  He also alleged that Yelp had “republished” the allegedly offending statements on Google by way of advertisements. The Ninth Circuit recognized that there was no immunity under the CDA if the service provider “created” or “developed” the offending materials.  However, the service provider had to make “a material contribution to the creation of development of content” in order to lose immunity under the CDA.

The Ninth Circuit concluded that neither prong was satisfied by Kimzey.  The court ruled that “the rating system does absolutely nothing to enhance the defamatory sting of the message beyond the words offered by the user.”  Further, the Ninth Circuit had previously found in Carafano v. Metrosplash.com, Inc., 339 F.3d 1119 (9th Cir. 2003), that the mere collection of responses to a particular question “does not transform [the service provider] into a developer of the underlying misinformation.”  Likewise, a California appellate court had previously rejected a claim based on eBay’s rating system and found that the system was “simply a representation of the amount of such positive information received by other users of eBay’s website.”  Gentry v. eBay, Inc., 121 Cal. Rptr.2d 703 (2002).

The Ninth Circuit, in relying on this precedence, reasoned that it was difficult “to see how Yelp’s rating system, which is based on rating inputs from third parties in which reduces this information into a single aggregate metric, is anything other than user generated data.” Furthermore, the Ninth Circuit rejected Kimzey’s argument that Yelp’s use of the user-generated information in advertisements subjected it to liability as a “republisher.”  The Ninth Circuit concluded that there was “[n]othing in the text of the CDA [that] indicated that immunity turns on how many times an interactive computer service publishes `information provided by another information content provider.’”   The Ninth Circuit ruled that “just as Yelp is immune from liability under the CDA for posting user generated content on its own website, Yelp is not liable for disseminating the same content in essentially the same format to a search engine as this action does not change the origin of the third party content.”  The Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of Kimzey’s complaint against Yelp.

The Kimzey case is a reminder of the broad protections provided to interactive computer service providers under the CDA when faced with state law lawsuits regarding the publication of information provided by a user.  Defendants in such cases should explore the possibility of immunity under the CDA in order to cut short such lawsuits by having them dismissed early, often prior to the expense of discovery.