Can a website be held responsible for a defamatory comment posted by a user? In most cases, the answer is “no.” Why? Because of Section 230 CDA.
Thanks to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, website operators and Internet Service Providers are immune from liability if someone posts a defamatory statement on an online property that they operate or host.
The “meat” of Section 230 of the CDA:
“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.”
Difference Between Defamation Liability For Online Media Outlets & Print Outlets
Different rules exist for online and offline publishers (kinda, sorta). For example, let’s say a freelance writer pens a scathing, libelous article and a newspaper publishes it. The newspaper could be held liable for the writer’s article even though the writer isn’t employed by the newspaper. Now, let’s apply the same scenario to Facebook. Thanks to Section 230 of the CDA, the social networking company is not responsible if John Doe posts a defamatory article on his Facebook page because Facebook enjoys defamation liability protection under Section 230 of the CDA.
If, however, a website posts an article or a piece of content that is defamatory, the website WILL be held responsible for Internet defamation.
Editors Under Section 230 of the CDA
Another key part of Section 230 of the CDA deals with editors. Even though a website wouldn’t normally be held responsible for defamatory content posted by a user, blog and forum editors can be considered the responsible publisher if they edit or approve content for publication. Editors can also be held liable for defamatory content for editing contributed content.
However, the CDA states:
No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of:
(A) any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected;
(B) any action taken to enable or make available to information content providers or others the technical means to restrict access to material described in paragraph (1).
In other words, if an editor publishes some articles and not others, based on the criteria above, the editor wouldn’t legally be deemed the publisher, despite his or her curating responsibilities.
If Section 230 CDA Protections Prevent Me From Suing A Website, What Do I Do If I Don’t Know The Real Name Of A Defaming Poster?
Who do you sue if the defaming poster is anonymous and uses an “Internet handle?” Answer: You file a “John Doe” lawsuit. Then you can submit a motion asking for a court order compelling John Doe’s ISP to turn over contact information for the offending poster(s).
Are There Any Situations In Which A Website Operator or ISP Can Be Sued For Internet Defamation Despite Section 230 CDA Protections?
Understand that although interactive computer service providers can’t be considered the publisher of defamatory content, they can be held liable for different reasons. To illustrate, let’s say defamer works for a webmaster and is paid to generate content. In such a case, the webmaster could be held liable for their employee’s content, thus nullifying the CDA’s protection for publishers in defamation lawsuits.
Here are a few quick tips to keep in mind when combating Internet defamation:
- Time is crucial. If you are defamed, file your Internet defamation suit as soon as it can be filed. You want to make sure your suit is filed before the statute of limitations runs out.
- Remember that Section 230 doesn’t protect against all types of illegal activity. The webmaster permitting copyright or trademark infringement, or some other criminal act on his or her website, might be held liable for the offenses.
- Always seek counsel of an attorney specializing in Internet law whether you are filing a defamation suit or need to defend yourself against a defamation suit.
Speak With An Internet Defamation Lawyer
If you are dealing with any Section 230 CDA issues, and you’re ready to speak with an attorney about your legal options, get in touch with Kelly / Warner Law. Our firm has handled countless online defamation cases and know the niche incredibly well. We know how to prepare motions for ISP court orders, and how to litigate libel cases quickly, so your life — and business — can get back on track.
Don’t hem and haw. Pick up the phone and start problem solving today. The process is probably a lot less painful (and less costly) than you think.