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Court reverses decision ordering Yelp to remove negative consumer reviews

The decision relates to an attempt to make an 'end-run around section 230' of the Communications Decency Act, which protects online platforms from incurring liability for content posted by their users.
by on 4th July 2018

California’s Supreme Court has reversed a decision that ordered consumer reviews website Yelp to remove negative reviews from its platform.

The decision is of importance to online platforms that host user generated content, partly because it upholds section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which states, “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.”

The case goes back to 2014 when an attorney, Dawn Hassell, accused one of her client’s, Ava Bird, who she previously represented in a personal injury case, of posting defamatory comments about her organization on Yelp.

The case is unique in the sense Yelp was never named as a defendant and thus Section 230 was deemed outside the scope of the legal challenge. Consequently, the court ruled in Hassell’s favour and demanded her former client remove the reviews. The ruling was also subsequently upheld by the Court of Appeal.

Despite the court order, the reviews remained on the platform and Hassel subsequently obtained a court order demanding Yelp remove them. Yelp contended this provided a backdoor to circumvent the provisions of Section 230.

The Supreme Court ruled 4 to 3 in Yelp’s favour and in its ruling stated, “The question here is whether a different result should obtain because plaintiffs made the tactical decision not to name Yelp as a defendant.

“Put another way, we must decide whether plaintiffs’ litigation strategy allows them to accomplish indirectly what Congress has clearly forbidden them to achieve directly. We believe the answer is no.”

It also characterised Hassell’s challenge as an attempt to make an “end-run around section 230.”

In an announcement on its website, Yelp contends that the Court of Appeal’s decision doesn’t just put its rights as a publisher at risk but could extend to the work of journalist’s “that use quotes or information from anyone else.”

The announcement also characterizes the legal as an “abuse of the legal system” and states that the decision ensures that online platforms that publish user-generated content “cannot be easily silenced through such tactics.”

Meanwhile, in comments provided to the Associated Press, Hassell’s attorney, Monique Olivier, stated that the ruling “stands as an invitation to spread falsehoods on the internet without consequence” and that her client is considering an appeal to the US Supreme Court.

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