PHILADELPHIA — Consumer advocacy site Ripoff Report is threatened with lawsuits on a near daily basis, and sometimes, those threats result in a suit actually being filed, such as a case filed July 1 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, claiming defamation.
“We receive a handful of cases a year,” Ed Magedson, founder of the site, told the Pennsylvania Record. “Most of the time our in-house counsel is able to explain to plaintiffs why filing litigation for defamation — or other claims directly related to such third-party content — is not consistent with the law."
Even in those cases, the site either wins or gets the suits dismissed, Magedson said.
"We are often able to persuade them by citing past cases that we, and others, have won, to dismiss the legal action against our company as a defendant in a case. There are, however, some people that take things personal and push the issue — typically the lay people that aren’t represented by counsel and may not be able to understand the complex nature of laws.”
Sites like Ripoff Report that publish posts from users — as opposed to post by the owners or employees of the site — have broad protection under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which Congress passed in 1996, according to Robert Frieden, a law professor at Penn State University’s school of law.
“We're dealing with something called intermediary liability,” Frieden told the Pennsylvania Record. “Often you're dealing with a situation where there's an anonymous person who doesn't identify him or herself and has a complaint.
"They submit the complaint to a website, and because of anonymity, people can say the most dishonest, vilest, tortious, defamatory things, and revel in their anonymity. The intermediary protects itself by not knowing the identity of the poster or through this process of intermediary exemption of liability.”
The 20-year-old law came about because of the limited technology available to owners of websites at the time, he said.
“This was written in the ’90s, when you had a far less evolved internet ecosystem, and the view was if intermediaries had to identify everyone, pre-qualify everybody, every possible post, they couldn't make a business case and wouldn't survive,” Frieden said.
“So Congress was persuaded that filtering and monitoring and vetting and credentialing and authenticating was beyond the technical capability of these intermediaries, so they were basically absolved of liability, provided they know nothing about the truth of the post. So you have on one side the poster, in the middle the internet service provider or the website, and then the audience.”
The July 1 suit, filed by Elis Pacheco, claims that a poster named Sandra Padjan defamed him in a May 2014 post and claims that when Ripoff Report published the post and refused to take it down, it became part of a conspiracy to defame and libel Pacheco and invade his privacy.
In a Frequently Asked Questions section of the Ripoff Report website, the site says that it won’t take down posts at either the request of the person mentioned or the original author. It does allow rebuttals to posts, and has also started an arbitration program that allows companies to have their arguments heard by a third party.
That program, which requires a $2,000 filing fee, puts the case before a professional arbiter, and if the arbiter finds statements from the original post to be false, those statements are redacted and the decision is noted in the title of the post.
In all, between 300 and 500 posts are submitted each day, Magedson said, not all of which are published. Personal information, including Social Security numbers and bank account information, are redacted, and clear threats of violence are reported to law enforcement and the person threatened.
“Ripoff Report has a set of eyes on every posting that comes in,” he said. “Depending on what the content is, we will send a follow-up communication to the author to ensure they stand behind their word. Depending on the response or lack of response, we may choose to, under our sole discretion, redact particular information or otherwise reject the posting entirely. This is the same policy with rebuttals.”
Even though sites aren’t liable for what users post, the posters themselves, if identified, can be held liable, Frieden said.
“The First Amendment protects opinion,” he said. “You're entitled to express your opinion, but if you know something is false and you misrepresent it as true, that's the definition of defamation.”
U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania Case number 2:16-cv-03625-GEKP