Google, Facebook Urge Court to Scrap Yelp Review Removal Order

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By Alexis Kramer

Alphabet Inc.'s Google, Facebook Inc. and other tech companies are weighing in on the California Supreme Court’s review of a decision requiring Yelp Inc. to remove allegedly defamatory reviews from its site ( Hassell v. Bird, Cal., No. S235968, amicus briefs filed 4/17/17 ).

The decision, if allowed to stand, would undermine broad federal protections for online platforms, companies including Airbnb Inc., Facebook and Twitter Inc. said in a brief filed April 17 in the case. It would “provide a dangerous roadmap for plaintiffs to evade Section 230" of the federal Communications Decency Act, the companies said.

Google, Glassdoor Inc., and trade and public interest groups have filed separate briefs in the past few days in support of Yelp. Yelp wasn’t a party in the defamation case brought by an attorney against a former client.

Dawn Hassell, an attorney at Hassell Law Group, obtained a court order requiring Yelp to remove allegedly defamatory reviews written by the former client. The California Superior Court denied Yelp’s bid to set aside the order. It ruled that Section 230, which protects online platforms from liability for third-party content, didn’t bar the removal order because it didn’t impose liability on Yelp. The California Supreme Court agreed to review the decision.

A Yelp spokesperson told Bloomberg BNA April 18 that the company welcomed the supportive briefs.

Monique Olivier, counsel for Hassell and a partner at Duckworth Peters Lebowitz Olivier LLP, told Bloomberg BNA that the case involves a “simply narrow” removal order for posts that were found by a court to be defamatory. The order “doesn’t impact Yelp’s substantive rights and protections under Section 230,” she said.

‘End Run’ Around Immunity

A ruling to uphold the appellate court’s decision “could create a huge hole in Section 230 immunity,” Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University, told Bloomberg BNA April 18. It would allow plaintiffs to target third-party content removal without invoking the statute, he said. Goldman is a member of the Public Participation Project, which also filed a brief backing Yelp.

Google said in its brief that the lower courts “endorsed a clear end run around Section 230.” Binding online platforms to court orders in cases they aren’t involved in would force those platforms to remove content without any notice or opportunity to be heard, Google said.

The decision would impose “greater obligations on online intermediaries as nonparties than they could face as named parties to a lawsuit,” Google said.

The Internet Association, whose members include Amazon.com Inc., Google and Facebook, and the Consumer Technology Association said in their brief that Hassell deprived Yelp of its ability to assert online publisher immunity by failing to name it as a party to the suit. Allowing the court’s decision to stand would permit plaintiffs in other cases to circumvent Section 230 protections by obtaining default judgments against the speaker of the content and subsequently winning court orders against the platform.

“This procedural stratagem eviscerates the strong federal substantive policy of the CDA, namely to shield service providers from efforts to hold them liable for deciding whether to publish, withdraw, postpone or alter material posted by third-parties,” the trade groups said in their brief.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alexis Kramer in Washington at aKramer@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine at kperine@bna.com

For More Information

Airbnb, Facebook and Twitter's amicus brief is available at http://src.bna.com/n27. Google's brief is available at http://src.bna.com/n29.The Internet Association's brief is available at http://src.bna.com/n28.Glassdoor's brief is available at http://src.bna.com/n3a.

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