California tech firms attempt to influence defamation ruling

Websites often encourage visitors to post comments, which are sometimes more interesting that the content. The question on the minds of a group of powerful technology companies, including California giants Google and Facebook, is whether website owners can be held liable for posts made by third parties. The technology businesses are so concerned about a federal appellate case underway that they’ve entered a legal brief to influence the outcome.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google co-founder Sergey Brin are among the petitioners who want the court to overturn an Internet defamation ruling. The tech group has no direct connection to the case between a former pro-football cheerleader and gossip website, TheDirty.com. However, since the outcome may impact the companies, the group was permitted to submit a legal brief stating its position.

The ex-cheerleader brought defamation charges against TheDirty.com, after the website featured an anonymous post in 2009, accusing the woman of promiscuity with members of the Cincinnati Bengals football team. A second post claimed the cheerleader’s unfaithful husband transmitted venereal diseases to his wife. A lower court last year sided with Jones and ordered TheDirty.com to pay $338,000.

The order for damages in the 2013 trial was based on the “significant” participation of TheDirty.com’s owner, Nik Richie, in posting defamatory material about the plaintiff. Richie apparently handpicks posts and “encourages” gossip among his followers. According to USA Today, a federal judge ruled in 2012 that TheDirty.com was not protected, as most websites have been, by the Communications Decency Act of 1996. The judge said the website’s owner lost protection by adding his own comments to the posts of others about the cheerleader.

Facebook, Twitter, Google and other tech firms are concerned that the appellate court’s affirmation could place website owners in legal jeopardy. Slander and libel cases, like all liability suits, are about fault and responsibility. Internet defamation causes reputation injuries that may cause compensable losses.

Source: New York Post, “Web defamation suit has Silicon Valley bigs on alert” Kaja Whitehouse, May. 02, 2014