In the case, a federal district court in Florida late last week dismissed a defamation and trademark infringement complaint brought by Whitney Information Network, a company billing itself as offering education in real estate investing, against Xcentric Ventures, the Arizona company that runs RipOffReport.com and BadBusinessBureau.com.
The court ruled that the federal Communications Decency Act protects site operators from liability for user comments--even when the company behind the sites has created tags for commenters to use to classify their posts. "The court finds that the mere fact that Xcentric provides categories from which a poster must make a selection in order to submit a report on the ... website is not sufficient to treat defendants as information content providers," wrote Judge Marcia Morales Howard of the Middle District of Florida, Fort Myers division.
Whitney Information Network's in-house lawyer declined to comment on the matter, or state whether the company planned to appeal.
Eric Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University School of Law and a well-known advocate for online publishers, said the case seemed "entirely consistent with existing precedent," even though the result--that tags created by publishers are treated as if they were user-created--might seem counterintuitive.
He said the court's rationale stems from the concept that "the Web site wrote those terms, but really they're given effect only when the users choose them."
The case raises the same legal issue as another pending lawsuit against roommate-matching site Roommates.com. In that case, a fair housing group in California sued Roommates.com for civil rights violations on the theory that the site enabled discrimination by giving users questionnaires with choices like "I will not live with children," as well as options to indicate whether they're willing to live with straight roommates only, gay roommates only, and the like.
The 9th Circuit appellate court initially ruled last May that Roommates.com was not immune from liability under federal law on the theory that the site had collaborated with users to create the content. "By categorizing, channeling and limiting the distribution of users' profiles, Roommate provides an additional layer of information that it is 'responsible' at least 'in part' for creating or developing," a three-judge panel of the court wrote.
But the 9th Circuit later vacated that ruling and ordered re-argument, which it heard late last year. A host of other Web companies--including Amazon, Google and eBay--unsuccessfully attempted to file a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of Roommates.com, but the court rejected it in December, apparently because accepting it would have created a conflict of interest for one or more judges deciding the case.