Thursday, October 02, 2014

Joseph v. Amazon.com, WDWA :: Dismissed per Sec. 230(c) :: Case Summary

Joseph v. Amazon. com, Inc., Dist. Court, WD Washington 2014 (granting Defendant's motion to dismiss based on 47 U.S.C. 230(c), Good Samaritan Provision of the Communications Decency Act).*

Dr. Rhawn Joseph, Ph.D., proceeding pro se, brings this action against Amazon.com, Inc. ("Amazon") and its CEO Jeff Bezos. … Dr. Joseph is an "author and science book publisher" who has sold his books online through Amazon`s website. He relies on "print on demand" ("POD") technology to print the books he sells.

Dr. Joseph filed this putative class action lawsuit on December 10, 2012 in the Northern District of California. …Plaintiff also alleges that Amazon regularly "publishes and copyrights defamatory and libelous statements about competitors including Plaintiff." He argues in his Complaint and briefing that Amazon is responsible for reviews that he believes to be defamatory, though the allegations are scattered and unclear.

D. Plaintiff's State-Law Defamation and Libel Claims are Barred by Section 230 of the CDA

As the Court understands the Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that Amazon unlawfully published defamatory anonymous reviews of Plaintiff`s books (and Plaintiff) on its website. Amazon argues in its opposition and cross-motion that Dr. Joseph`s claim fails as a matter of law because (i) Amazon is protected from liability under the Communications Decency Act of 1996, 47 U.S.C. § 230, for statements made by reviewers on its website; and (2) the alleged statements are all matters of opinion and are thus not actionable. Upon review, the Court agrees that Section 230 immunity bars Dr. Joseph`s claim against Defendants. Amazon and Mr. Bezos are entitled to judgment on the pleadings on this claim, or in the alternative, summary judgment.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act ("CDA") "immunizes providers of interactive computer services against liability arising from content created by third parties." Fair Hous. Council of San Fernando Valley v. Roommates.com, LLC, 521 F.3d 1157, 1162 (9th Cir. 2008) (en banc); Carafano v. Metrosplash.com, 339 F.3d 1119, 1122 (9th Cir. 2003). The statute provides that "[n]o 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." 47 U.S.C. § 230(c)(1). Ultimately, a defendant is entitled to § 230 protection as long as (1) it is a provider or user of an "interactive computer service," (2) the asserted claims "treat the defendant as a publisher or speaker of information," and (3) the challenged communication is "information provided by another content provider." Batzel v. Smith, 333 F.3d 1018, 1037 (9th Cir. 2003).

Amazon is entitled to § 230`s protection from Plaintiff`s defamation/libel/slander/trade libel claim. Amazon constitutes an "interactive service provider," which the CDA defines as a provider of an information service or system that "enables computer access by multiple users to a computer server." 47 U.S.C. § 230(f)(2); see Corbis Corp. v. Amazon.com, Inc., 351 F.Supp.2d 1090, 1118 (W.D. Wash. 2004) (no dispute that Amazon is an interactive service provider for CDA purposes); Schneider v. Amazon, 108 Wn.App. 454, 463 (Wash. 2001) (finding Amazon to be an interactive service provider and entitled to immunity from claims based on defamatory reviews by third parties). Plaintiff`s Complaint alleges that Amazon operates a website that allows consumers to purchase items online, i.e., to access Amazon`s servers by placing orders and browsing its online store. (See Dkt. No. 1 at ¶ 5.) Second, Dr. Joseph`s claim, whether labeled as a defamation, libel, slander or trade libel cause of action, faults Amazon for acting as the publisher of the reviews. (See, e.g., Dkt. Nos. 1 at ¶ 60 ("Amazon published, copyrighted and claimed ownership" of the allegedly libelous statements); 43 at ¶ 85 ("The above are just a few examples of anonymous[,] defamatory, libelous reviews published by the Defendants."). The CDA`s express terms preclude him from treating Amazon as a publisher or speaker of the information at issue, which is necessary for his state-law claims to succeed. See Barnes v. Yahoo!, Inc., 570 F.3d 1096, 1101 (9th Cir. 2009) (recognizing that "the cause of action most frequently associated with the cases on section 230 is defamation[,]" but explaining that the statute`s protection extends beyond defamation causes of action); Kimzey v. Yelp Inc., ___ F.Supp.2d ___, 2014 WL 1805551 (W.D. Wash. 2014) (unfair business practices, malicious libel, and libel per se claims barred against website that allowed users to post reviews of businesses). Finally, the statements alleged were made by third-party reviewers commenting on Dr. Joseph`s books and videos, and Dr. Joseph himself. (See generally Dkt. Nos. 1 at ¶¶ 25-26, 60; 43 at ¶ 85.) They accordingly constitute "information provided by another content provider" under the CDA`s terms. See 47 U.S.C. § 230(f)(3) (defining "information content provider" as "any person or entity that is responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation or development of information provided through the Internet or any other interactive computer service."). In sum, Plaintiff`s claim against Amazon is barred under § 230 of the CDA.

Dr. Joseph counters this inevitable conclusion with a number of arguments. First, he alleges and argues that the CDA does not apply because Amazon makes "editorial" decisions about which product reviews to publish and which to delete. This argument is without merit. The Ninth Circuit has made clear that such editorial acts (even assuming they are true) are protected: "[S]o long as a third-party willingly provides the essential published content, the interactive services provider receives full immunity regardless of the specific editing or selection process." Carofano, 339 F.3d at 1124. Whether the website operator removes certain reviews, publishes others, or alters the content, it is still entitled to CDA immunity, since those activities constitute a publisher`s traditional editorial functions. Roommates.com, 521 F.3d at 1179-80 ("[A]ny activity that can be boiled down to deciding whether to exclude material that third parties seek to post online is perforce immune under section 230."). It is no surprise then that Courts have repeatedly barred similar claims against websites that allow anonymous reviews or other allegedly defamatory content to be posted by third parties. See, e.g., id.; Black v. Google Inc., 457 Fed. Appx. 622 (9th Cir. 2011) (unpublished) (Google not liable for anonymous negative business reviews posted in its online business directory); Kimzey, 2014 WL 1805551, at *2-3 (Yelp! website entitled to CDA immunity from claims based on reviews posted on its site).

Dr. Joseph also argues that Amazon is the "owner" of statements because it "copyrights" them after they are posted. As Defendants' point out, this argument appears to be factually incorrect—Amazon`s standard Conditions of Use expressly state that customers posting reviews own the content and merely grant Amazon a license to use it—and in any event, is unpersuasive as a legal argument because Dr. Joseph still alleges nothing more than Amazon`s fault for publishing content first created and posted by third-parties. On a different note, Plaintiff argues that CDA cannot apply because the reviews make defamatory statements about him as a person rather than about his books. Such an argument is without merit. The essential elements of CDA immunity do not turn on the substance of the alleged statements, but rather, on the party who is allegedly liable for them and whether that party must be deemed a "publisher" to incur liability. See, e.g., Gavra v. Google Inc., Case No. C12-6547, 2013 WL 3788241, at *2-3 (N.D. Cal. July 17, 2013) (claims based on allegedly defamatory videos about other individuals posted on YouTube barred under § 230).

Finally, Dr. Joseph implies that the individuals who posted the allegedly defamatory and libelous statements about him online were "directly associated with the Defendants and may be an employee of Amazon." (Dkt. No. 1 at ¶ 71.C.) This argument fails for a number of reasons. First, Dr. Joseph`s Complaint itself contains insufficient allegations to support a conclusion that Amazon authored any content. Plaintiff relies on nothing more than "mere speculation" to allege that some unidentified Amazon employee might have authored the negative commentary about him without explaining why or how that might be the case. Such allegations are wholly insufficient to avoid § 230`s reach. See, e.g., Levitt v. Yelp! Inc., Case No. C10-1321, 2011 WL 5079526, at *2 (N.D. Cal. Oct. 26, 2011) (rejecting similarly speculative assertions that unidentified Yelp employees authored allegedly defamatory reviews). Additionally, even if the Court accepted this conclusory allegation as sufficient, summary judgment against Plaintiff would be warranted because he provides absolutely no evidence to support his assertion that any Amazon employee posted the reviews at issue. On the other hand, Amazon has provided a sworn declaration clarifying that Amazon neither creates nor controls the content of any third-party reviews, except that it reserves the right to delete reviews that violate its published policies. That alone would be sufficient to justify summary judgment for Amazon.

In sum, the Court concludes that Amazon is entitled to § 230 immunity for Plaintiff`s "libel/defamation/slander/trade libel" claim.



* The case involved several causes of action. Cybertelecom focuses only on the federal internet causes of action.
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