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Online Defamation and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act

By Eric Misterovich

Online defamation victims are often frustrated to find that a website on which defamatory posts appear will not remove the defamation. Many clients have contacted our firm because a third party has posted false or defamatory reviews or statements to one of the large consumer-oriented websites, such as RipOffReport, Complaints Board, or Pissed Consumer. These sites, along with others, are notorious for declining to remove posts even where the victim has provided substantial evidence showing that they have been defamed. These sites are shielded by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides interactive computer services with immunity from liability for the republication of defamatory or invasive statements.

Section 230 states that a provider of an interactive computer service will not be treated as a speaker or publisher of any information provided by an information content provider. This means that, as long as a website does not create the content itself, it cannot be held liable for the republication of defamatory or invasive statements. At common law, a newspaper could be held equally as liable for its publishing of the defamatory statements of its reporters as the reporters themselves because a newspaper was presumed to have control over the content published in its newspaper. At the start of the Internet age, courts continued this doctrine, which made online services, such as Prodigy, liable if they exercised editorial control over the content published through their services. In Congress’ mind, this created a disincentive–if Prodigy removed or edited defamatory content, it could be held liable as a publisher.

Consequently, Congress enacted Section 230, which was intended to provide service providers with an incentive to self-police the content of their websites. Unfortunately, many websites soon began to take advantage of the blanket immunity granted by the Act and created business models that take a notorious hands-off approach to the republication of false and defamatory content. Subsequently cases have consistently upheld that immunity, and numerous cases have been dismissed on Section 230 grounds.

Not all claims, however, are barred by Section 230. Though Section 230 provides blanket immunity for tort claims against interactive computer services, it does not provide immunity from prosecution for intellectual property infringement. Thus, it is important to contact an Internet defamation attorney to ensure that you understand all of your rights under the law.

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