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The California Supreme Court today reversed an appeals court decision (warning: direct link to forty page law document) with a new ruling that states that individuals are generally immune from liability for transmitting content over the Internet that was authored by someone else.
So basically, if you post something on your website that originated somewhere else (for example, Britney Spears divorces her husband using a cellphone!) that turns out to be defamatory (that just means it falsely accuses or damages the person’s reputation; my example doesn’t work here, just pretend it does), then you are NOT liable, only the author of the originating content is liable. “Liable” meaning “can be sued for defamation.”
The situation was a little scary, in that, California lower courts had decided earlier that transmitters of content online could be liable for defamation. The case in question is Stephen J. Barrett et al. v. Ilena Rosenthal. The case revolves around a highly critical letter Rosenthal received via email that claimed a certain doctor used “scare tactics, stalking, and intimidation techniques.” Rosenthal posted the letter on two websites and was sued because Barrett claimed the letter was defamatory.
Defamatory or not, the California Supreme Court explains that in the Communications Decency Act of 1996, Congress declared: “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. No cause of action may be brought and no liability may be imposed under any State or local law that is inconsistent with this section.”
The latest document explains that “these provisions have been widely and consistently interpreted to confer broad immunity against defamation liability for those who use the Internet to publish information that originated from another source.”
This is good news for an Internet highly saturated with blogs and community driven content sites, such as Digg, that are solely in the business of transmitting or distributing information. Now bloggers, diggers, and online communities in general can sleep well at night knowing that they aren’t liable just for passing around information.