Brief Fact Summary.
The Blumenthals (Plaintiffs) brought suit against Drudge (Defendant) and America Online (AOL) (Defendant) for defamation over an article written by Drudge and posted on AOL’s website. AOL claimed that it was immune from liability under § 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA).
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
An Internet service provider is immune from liability in a defamation claim when the allegedly defamatory material was created by an independent third party and merely posted by the provider.
Drudge (Defendant) published a gossip column known as the Drudge Report online. AOL (Defendant) is an Internet service provider that also maintains its own website. AOL and Drudge agreed that AOL would pay Drudge $3000 a month so that it could post Drudge’s column on its website. The Drudge Report wrote a column, posted by AOL, claiming that Blumenthal (Plaintiff), who had been hired as the President’s assistant, had assaulted his wife, also a White House employee. Plaintiffs brought a defamation suit against Defendants. In response, Drudge retracted the story and apologized. AOL moved for summary judgment, arguing that § 230 of the CDA gave it immunity from the suit.
Under § 230 of the CDA, is an Internet service provider immune from liability in a defamation suit when the allegedly defamatory material was created by an independent third party and only posted by the provider?
(Friedman, J.) Yes. An Internet service provider is immune from liability in a defamation claim when the allegedly defamatory material was created by an independent third party and merely posted by the provider. In drafting the CDA, Congress intentionally decided not to treat providers of interactive computer services, such as AOL, the same as other publishers, such as newspapers, magazines, television networks, and radio stations, in terms of liability for defamatory material written or prepared by others. This difference comes from a recognition that information is shared online at such a speed and in such quantity that regulating that content is nearly impossible. Here, AOL did not participate in creating the story in question and, therefore, under the CDA, cannot be liable as a publisher or speaker of the story. Even though AOL proactively licensed the Drudge Report and promoted it on its website, Congress has made a policy choice to confer immunity from tort liability as an incentive to Internet service providers to self-police Internet content. Congress made no distinction in the CDA between publishers and distributors in providing immunity. So although AOL receives the benefit of this immunity without accepting the intended burdens of self-policing, AOL is indeed immune from suit. The motion for summary judgment is granted.
Had AOL developed or created the questionable content itself, the CDA would not serve to protect it. In this case, AOL clearly did not have a hand in the Blumenthal story written by Drudge and so AOL could not be sued for posting it.