A hot potato: From the EU's Article 11 and 13 to last year's passing of FOSTA in the United States, purveyors of UGC have seen their risks for liability increase. In the US, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects platforms from being sued over user-generated content. The provision scored a victory on Tuesday when the SCOTUS refused to hear a case against Yelp.
According to Tuesday’s docket, the US Supreme Court rejected an appeal to hear a case involving Yelp’s refusal to remove allegedly defamatory reviews from its website.
The certiorari (writ for ruling reviewal) stemmed from a 2016 defamation lawsuit (Hassell v. Bird) between attorney Dawn Hassell and former client Ava Bird, in which Bird had left negative reviews about her lawyer. The Verge notes that during that hearing Yelp was given a court order to remove the posted content in question but refused.
It stated that Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act (CDA) protected it from such censorship. Lower courts ruled that Section 230 did not apply in this case. Yelp took the matter to the California Supreme Court, which overturned the removal order. The fight was then picked up by defamation lawyer Charles Harder who petitioned the SCOTUS to hear the case.
The high court refused to review the ruling which means that the California SC decision stands. The dismissal is a big win for online platforms in terms of their liability risks. Section 230 is a part of the CDA that protects web services like Yelp, Twitter, Facebook, and others from being held liable for user-posted content.
Hassell v. Bird was filed in 2016 by attorney Dawn Hassell, who accused an angry former client named Ava Bird of making false, negative claims in Yelp reviews.
Several other legal cases have been brought forward that challenge the limits of Section 230. Congress has also been chipping away at the provision. The biggest example being the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) of 2018. This law made platforms liable for any content that advertised prostitution and completely changed websites like Craigslist.
Even Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, who helped pen Section 230 has taken swipes at his handiwork. During an interview on Net Neutrality, Wyden was asked if Section 230 should be changed.
“I think the ball right now is in the industry’s court with a sense of urgency,” the Senator said. “If they don’t step up and use the sword of the law to police their platforms, whether they like it or not, there’s no question that there will be additional efforts, basically built around the proposition, don’t tell us your pipes are neutral. They’re not. They’re pipes that have to be used for the benefit of society.”
Yelp, who called California’s original decision “[a win for] those of us who value sharing one another’s opinions and experiences [on the web],” also applauded the Supreme Court’s dismissal in a brief statement.
“We are happy to see the Supreme Court has ended Hassell’s efforts to sidestep the law to compel Yelp to remove online reviews. This takes away a tool that could have been easily abused by litigants to obtain easy removal of entirely truthful consumer opinions.”
Harder, who had referred to Yelp’s Section 230 defense as an “outrageous misreading of the law,” was unavailable for comment on the SCOTUS certiorari denial.