Blogs

Posted on Monday, September 10, 2012

A License to Libel: Virginia Federal Court Extends Immunity under Communications Decency Act

Today, every business knows how important its online reputation is when it comes to attracting new customers.  With businesses becoming increasingly impacted by online review sites, many have taken to the courts in an effort to protect themselves against negative internet postings. One such advertising company, Directory Assistants, Inc. (DAI) sued its competitor, SuperMedia, LLC, two of its sales representatives, and a district sales manager, for allegedly emailing prospective customers with links to negative and allegedly defamatory postings about DAI on consumer websites, such as ripoffreport.com.

In its recent ruling, a Norfolk, Virginia federal court dismissed DAI’s case on the ground that the Communications Decency Act (CDA) shielded SuperMedia from liability. Section 230 of the CDA provides that “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.” While many federal courts of appeal, including the Fourth Circuit, have held that the CDA creates broad federal immunity for internet service providers, this was the first Virginia federal case to extend immunity under the CDA to a third party “user” who finds and forwards content posted online. The Court recognized that Congress has granted “anonymous posters on these websites a license to libel people” and that such blanket immunity could have potentially catastrophic consequences for individuals and businesses alike, but concluded that “under the CDA, the Court’s hands are tied.”

Thus, unless Congress amends the CDA, business owners are limited to suits against individuals who actually wrote, created, or developed the allegedly defamatory content. As such, businesses should make every effort to take a proactive approach to improving their online reputation, survey their customers for reviews and honest feedback, and timely respond to any customer grievances.

Author Sara Dajani is an Associate Attorney with the D.C. regional business law firm of Berenzweig Leonard, LLP.  She can be reached at sdajani@berenzweiglaw.com.

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