GoDaddy Obtains Section 230 Immunity Despite Plaintiffs’ “Sympathetic” Claims
Published: February 9, 2023
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (“CDA”) provides immunity to “interactive computer services” providers against certain types of legal claims, such as when harmful material is posted on their site by third parties. Until recently, the Ninth Circuit had not decided whether to extend the protections of section 230 immunity to a website domain registrar such as GoDaddy.com. On February 3, 2023, in the case Rigsby v. GoDaddy, Inc., the Ninth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of rather sympathetic claims against GoDaddy and found that section 230 immunity would apply to plaintiffs’ claims.
Scott Rigsby is a physically challenged athlete and motivational speaker who was the first double-leg amputee to complete an Ironman triathlon. He formed a non-profit, the Scott Rigsby Foundation, for wounded veterans and other individuals with disabilities. In 2007, he registered the domain name “scottrigsbyfoundation.org” with GoDaddy. Unfortunately, in 2018, due to some glitch with GoDaddy’s billing system, the Foundation failed to pay the annual renewal fee, and a third party “swooped in and registered the domain for itself.” That third party then turned the scottrigsbyfoundation.org website into a “portal into an online gambling education site.” Rigsby (and his Foundation) sued GoDaddy for various claims, including state law claims for invasion of privacy/publicity, trade libel, and libel. (This article will not address the Court’s Opinion dealing with the issues of trademark infringement and a claim for declaratory judgment.)
The district court dismissed Rigsby’s state law claims against GoDaddy after finding that section 230 immunity applied in this case. Rigsby appealed that decision to the Ninth Circuit, which was called upon to decide this issue as a matter of first impression.
The Ninth Circuit noted that plaintiffs’ claims were “sympathetic.” However, it recognized that “Section 230 of the CDA immunizes providers of interactive computer services against liability arising from content created by third parties.” In essence, immunity under section 230 is available provided: (1) the defendant is an interactive computer service; (2) the plaintiff, with its claims, is treating the defendant as the publisher or speaker of allegedly harmful content; and (3) the content is actually provided by another provider, such as a website user.
The Ninth Circuit then turned to whether GoDaddy, as a website domain registrar, qualified as an “interactive computer service.” Under section 230, an “interactive computer service” is defined as “any information service, system or access software provider that provides or enables computer access by multiple users to a computer server.” Typical examples of the types of providers that have received section 230 immunity include “website exchange systems, online message boards, and search engines.” The key for receiving immunity under section 230 is that the “interactive computer service” cannot “also function as an `information content provider’ for the portion of the statement or publication at issue.” Notably, the definition of “interactive computer service is relatively expansive,” as the Ninth Circuit concluded.
The Ninth Circuit looked to a decision from the Second Circuit Court of Appeal, Ricci v. Teamsters Local Union 456, which had previously held that GoDaddy was entitled to section 230 immunity as an “interactive computer service” provider. The Ninth Circuit agreed with the Second Circuit’s approach. The Ninth Circuit concluded that “[a]s a domain name registrar and website hosting provider, GoDaddy `provides or enables computer access by multiple users to a computer server’ and provides an `interactive computer service’ under section [ 230].”
The Ninth Circuit then turned to the next two prongs of its analysis and readily found that they favored GoDaddy. First, the Ninth Circuit concluded that GoDaddy was not the “publisher” of the content at issue in Rigsby’s claims. Rigsby’s claims focused on the content on the website that was directed at gambling and essentially argued that he and his Foundation were “defamed” by suggesting a tie between his Foundation and gambling. The Ninth Circuit found that GoDaddy had merely registered the domain but that the content on the website had been provided by a third party, not GoDaddy. Thus, “Section 230 shields GoDaddy from publisher liability when another party is doing the speaking.”
The Ninth Circuit likewise rejected Rigsby’s claims that GoDaddy was acting as an “information content provider.” Rigsby tried to argue that GoDaddy had made “the affirmative decision to publish” the alleged gambling content on the Foundation’s former web domain. Section 230 immunity can be lost if the service provider makes “a material contribution” to a particular site’s content. However, Rigsby’s complaint did not make any allegations that GoDaddy “contributed to the content of the gambling site” other than providing a domain name and web hosting services. The Ninth Circuit concluded, “a website does not create or develop content when it merely provides a neutral means by which third parties can post information of their own independent choosing online.”
The Rigsby decision is a reminder that courts typically define “internet services provider” in the CDA broadly for purposes of immunity from liability in certain cases. Defense counsel representing internet-related companies should consider whether their clients can take advantage of Section 230’s immunity provisions.