Play It Safe. Link!

A case just recently decided by the U.S District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania makes it clear that hyperlinking to content online is the most effective way to avoid legal headaches. As a rule of thumb, cutting and pasting is bad. Linking is good. In summary, the decision holds that Google is immune, under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, to a state-law claim alleging that Google defamed the plaintiff by publishing hyperlinks to third-party websites containing derogatory statements about him. Here’s how the court described the facts:

On or around September 2006, the plaintiff, Omar Mmubango, discovered that an unknown individual was posting anonymous statements about the plaintiff on a website, . The statements, which were derogatory in nature, were accessible upon triggering certain search terms in a website published by defendant Google, Inc. The plaintiff repeatedly requested that Google take the statements off of its search engine and that Google give the plaintiff information about the then-unknown poster, but Google refused both requests. On October 6, 2011, the plaintiff filed a complaint in Pennsylvania state court against Google and an “Unknown Party.”2 He seeks over $700,000 in damages. Google removed the action to federal court on March 13, 2012, and it filed the instant motion to dismiss on March 20, 2012.

Here’s the gist of the court’s fairly succinct holding:

First, Google is an interactive computer service provider. According to the CDA, an interactive computer service is “any information service, system, or access software provider that provides or enables computer access by multiple users to a computer server.” Here, the plaintiff’s allegations are premised upon the fact that he and other Internet users are provided access to Google’s server. The Court agrees with the number of courts which have held that a website such as Google fits the definition of an interactive computer service provider.

Second, the plaintiff seeks to hold Google liable for information provided by another information content provider, . If a defendant did not create or author the statement in controversy, but rather is provided that statement by a third-party information content provider, then that defendant cannot be held liable under the CDA.

Here, the plaintiff has not alleged that Google created or authored the derogatory statement; instead, he alleges that Google “stored” and “broadcasted” the information that was created by the other two defendants. Because the plaintiff seeks to impose liability for Google’s actions involving information provided by another information content provider, Section 230(c) applies to his claims.

Finally, the plaintiff’s causes of action seek to treat Google as the publisher of the third party’s statements. Traditional acts of an editorial, or publishing, nature include “deciding whether to publish, withdraw, or alter content.” In the internet service provider context, such decisions would involve deciding whether to provide access to third-party content or whether to delete the content from its archival or cache. Courts have repeatedly held that defamation claims against qualified providers are barred by the CDA.

All that legal talk is simply making the point that it is okay to point someone to content created by someone else. And that’s all that linking is when you think about it. The moral of the story? When in doubt, link. It probably protects you from a copyright claim as well.