Content Regulation / Censorship, Political Expression
Zhang v. Baidu.com, Inc.
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The United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida dismissed a lawsuit against Twitter implementing the three-part test under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, 1996. Barry Mezey, a Twitter user, filed a lawsuit against Twitter for suspending his account without providing any reasonable justification. The District Court dismissed the complaint and observed that Twitter was an interactive computer service exercising a publisher’s traditional editorial functions and considered Mezey’s content as the “third party” content. The District Court concluded that the Communications Decency Act protected Twitter’s decision to remove Mezey’s content.
Barry Mezey filed a lawsuit against Twitter under various theories of liability, alleging that the platform unlawfully suspended his Twitter account. Twitter then moved to dismiss, arguing that Section 230(c)(1) of the Communications Decency Act barred Mezey’s claims.
Chief Judge K. Michael Moore delivered the judgment on 19 July 2018. The central issue for the Court was to determine whether Twitter’s motion to dismiss Mezey’s claims was maintainable under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, 1996, which grants immunity protection to online intermediaries that host or republish speech.
The Court firstly examined the scope of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, 1996. The Court relied on Federal Trade Commission v. LeadClick Media(2016) to observe that the Communications Decency Act (CDA) bars lawsuits that seek to hold a service provider liable for exercising a publisher’s traditional editorial functions including, deciding whether to publish, withdraw, postpone or alter the content. Moreover, the Court observed that Section 230(c)(1) of the CDA stipulates that “No provider or user of interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider” [p. 2].
Furthermore, it underscored that Section 230(b) of the CDA stipulates that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of…..any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers being obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected.”
Twitter contended that CDA bars Mezey’s claims. Twitter also contended two additional independent bases for dismissal, that the First Amendment protects Twitter’s right to exercise editorial control and judgment, and that Mezey’s claims fail on the merits. However, the Court declined to address Twitter’s alternate bases for dismissal.
On the CDA, Twitter contended that the CDA bars Mezey’s claims because firstly, Twitter is a provider or user of an interactive computer service. Secondly, because the relevant content contained information provided by another information content provider, and thirdly because the complaint sought to hold Twitter liable for its exercise of a publisher’s traditional editorial functions, such as deciding whether to publish, withdraw, postpone or alter the content. The Court accepted Twitter’s ‘three-part test and observed that the CDA barred Mezey’s claims [p. 2].
To determine whether Twitter falls within the interactive computer service, the Court referred to American Freedom Defense Initiative v. Lynch (2016), where the term “interactive computer service” under Section 230(f)(2) of the CDA was defined as “any information service, system, or access software provider that provides or enables computer access by multiple users to a computer server, including specifically a service or system that provides access to the Internet.” The Court considered Twitter a platform that transmits, receives, displays, organizes, and hosts content as an interactive computer service under the CDA (Klayman v. Zuckerberg (2014)) [p. 3].
To determine whether Twitter’s relevant content contains information provided by another information content provider, the Court employed a similar argument to the decision in the case of Sikhs for Justice Inc. v. Facebook, Inc. (2017), and held that Mezey was the information content provider as he created the relevant content associated with his Twitter account [p. 3].
To determine the third requirement of the test i.e., whether Mezey’s claim to seek to hold Twitter liable for exercising a publisher’s traditional editorial functions is maintainable, the Court relied on Fair Hous. Council of San Fernando Valley v. Roommates.com (2008) and held that any activity that can be boiled down to deciding whether to exclude material that third parties seek to post online is perforce immune under Section 230 of the CDA.
Taking consideration of the preceding reasoning, Justice Moore granted Twitter’s motion to dismiss and denied Mezey’s amended complaint with prejudice.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
While the decision does not provide background on the facts surrounding why Twitter suspended the user’s account, Eric Goldman writing for the Technology and Marketing Law Blog observed that the Court widens Section 230 of the CDA’s jurisprudence emerging from Riggs v. MySpace to Sikhs for Justice v. Facebook to Taylor v. Twitter, wherein the Court in each case treats the plaintiff’s content as the “third party” content for Section 230 purposes and holds that Section 230 protects the defendant’s decision to remove the plaintiff’s “third party” content. The Court in this decision reaffirmed the Communications Decency Act protection of interactive platforms from liability. However, by focusing on the contractual relationship between the plaintiff and Twitter, the Court failed to address the possible impact of removing the content for the user in light of the national and international standards of freedom of expression, allowing interactive platforms to over-moderate by censoring content.
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