By now, most people are familiar with a federal law known as the Communications Decency Act. The primary feature of the law is Section 230, which effectively immunizes Web site hosts from liability arising from content uploaded to the site by third parties. And while that concept frustrates some people – especially victims of nasty anonymous posts – the law has no doubt contributed to the robust online exchanges we see every day.
But as we know, not only are laws made to be broken, they are made to be circumvented whenever possible. And disgruntled subjects of anonymous posts continue to search for whatever loopholes they can get their hands on to avoid Section 230.
A Seattle based federal court recently rejected such an effort by a locksmith, who tried to hold the review site Yelp liable for a scathing review by a poster known only as “Sarah K.” According to Ms. K, her experience with the plaintiff was “THE WORST EXPERIENCE [she’d] EVER ENCOUNTERED WITH A LOCKSMITH.” And you know she was mad, given the all caps.
This scenario is the quintessential Section 230 model – Yelp is the site host who provides the interactive service, and Sarah K is the third party content provider. But the locksmith’s loophole (or would it be a keyhole?) was that Yelp allowed users to assign a star based rating using automated tools provided by Yelp. In the locksmith’s theory, by providing this feature, Yelp itself became a content provider.
But the court noted that merely providing a method for rating a service does not transform the host into a content provider – the user chooses the number of stars, and therefore remains the content provider.
So once again, a Web host “locks down” another CDA victory.