In response to threatened legal action from a Florida law firm unhappy with negative reviews posted by users of the online attorney review site LawyerRatingz.com, the site’s operator, Ratingz, Inc., filed an action in California federal court seeking declaratory relief that the site is immune from any threatened action. The declaratory judgment action, filed with the assistance of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, reaffirms the importance to online service providers of the safe harbor provision of section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
According to Ratingz’s complaint, the managing partner of the Fort Lauderdale firm, Adrian Philip Thomas, P.A., emailed Ratingz in December 2011 requesting the name of Ratingz’s agent in Florida in order to serve it with a complaint arising from two negative reviews of the firm posted on LawyerRatingz.com. On February 2, 2012, an attorney representing the firm sent Ratingz a cease and desist letter threatening legal action if Adrian Thomas’s name and “all ratings” were not removed from the site by the following day. The following week, the firm sent another letter to Ratingz claiming that the firm had lost business due to the reviews and attaching a complaint that Adrian Thomas planned to file in Florida state court, which alleged tortious interference with a business relationship and sought to enjoin Ratingz from displaying the firm’s name.
Ratingz is seeking a declaration from the Northern District of California that it is not legally required to remove the third-party reviews pursuant to section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (“CDA 230”). CDA 230 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 content provider.” 47 U.S.C. § 230(c)(1). This provision establishes that so long as they are simply providing a forum, online service providers are akin to distributors of content rather than publishers, and are thus immune to liability arising from information originating from users of the service. While it has most often been applied as a bar against defamation claims, CDA 230 expressly preempts any non-criminal state law inconsistent with its provisions. 47 U.S.C. § 230(e)(3). Although many courts have held that CDA 230 applies to “interactive computer services” such as websites, blogs, forums, and listservs, in one of its letters to Ratingz, the firm asserted that CDA 230 was designed to protect hosting entities like GoDaddy and not traditional websites.
The case has been assigned to a magistrate judge and discovery is scheduled to begin in May.