Angie’s List and its members can celebrate a victory at the hands of a contractor who sued Angie’s List several years ago. The lawsuit was triggered by the contractor’s disagreement about certain postings by Angie’s List Members on the Angie’s List website, www.angieslist.com, concerning work performed by the contractor. The decision issued by a District of Columbia Court came after years of contentious litigation in which the contractor, Stephen Sieber, and his business, SCS Contracting Group, complained that Angie’s List, some of Angie’s List’s members, and the Washington Post financially ruined SCS and Sieber. The Washington Post had published articles about Sieber’s dispute with Angie’s List and its members. Sieber claimed damages in excess of $60 million. The Court exonerated Angie’s List, its members and the Washington Post on all issues. A copy of the decision can be accessed here.
Angie’s List was one of the first Internet sites to afford protection to consumers via on-line Internet ratings from other consumers. In holding that Angie’s List was immune from defamation suits based on the postings of third parties on its interactive Internet site, the Court validated Angie’s List Business Model, which is a cornerstone of consumer protection on the Internet.
For nearly fifteen years, Angie’s List has helped millions of consumers make informed decisions as to whom they should hire for various services (from plumbers and painters to dentists and dermatologists). Today, Angie’s List members can research, rate, and review service providers across 450 different categories in more than 120 cities around the United States. Angie’s List encourages honest assessment of service providers, so with more than 40,000 reports being submitted each month, not all of the comments contain positive comments about service providers. The fact is Angie’s List’s members rely on each other to provide unbiased and reliable reviews (good or bad). It is this type of assessment by Angie’s List members that adds the real value to the site for other Angie’s List members.
Angie’s List has developed numerous mechanisms to promote honest, reliable and valuable feedback. For example, Angie’s List prohibits service providers from submitting reports about themselves or their competitors. It also allows service providers to register with the website so they are notified when a report about them is submitted, and it gives the service provider an opportunity to respond, as long as the service provider follows an established protocol. The result has been a website that allows consumers to make more informed decisions about who they hire and allows service providers the opportunity to monitor customers’ comments.
It is not surprising that some service providers disagree with comments by their customers. In Sieber’s case, he charged (among many other things) that Angie’s List should be held liable for postings by its members about his business and also for refusing to publish his responses. In rejecting those claims, the Court stated that:
It is important to specify that Angie’s List is immune from defamation suits based on the postings of third parties on its interactive Internet site, according to the federal law known as the Communications Decency Act of 1996, 47 U.S.C. §230 (c) (1). This is why the plaintiffs have no basis for suing based upon anything posted on Angie’s List.
The federal law commonly known as the Communications Decency Act provides that a website operator is not considered the “speaker” of any information placed on its website by another person, assuming the Internet operator complies with the definitions and requirements of the Act. Here, the content was on Angie’s List, but was provided by Angie’s List members.
It is also important to Angie’s List that its members know that they are protected by the law for making truthful statements on the Angie’s List website. Angie’s List believes that its members should feel vindicated in this multi-year struggle that Angie’s List protected their opinions as expressed on the website.
The Court also rejected Sieber’s claims that Angie’s List wrongfully denied him the “right” to publish a response. The Court clarified that legally Sieber had no legal “right” to a response, even if he conformed with applicable Angie’s List’s policies concerning responses by contractors. In this instance, Sieber failed to comply with Angie’s List policies and therefore his response was not posted. Angie’s List did send a notice to its members about Sieber’s company and published an article in its Member’s Magazine that included some of Sieber’s comments, but the Court found that these comments were also not defamatory.
In today’s internet marketplace, an increasing number of companies are providing a website forum where customers or members can post information and share their thoughts or experiences. This recent ruling validates that the Communications Decency Act provides immunity to website operators who operate within the requirements of the Act.
For more information about this recent Court decision or about how the Communications Decency Act might impact your business, please contact Michael Wukmer, Melanie Harris, or George Gasper at Ice Miller. For information about Angie’s List, please contact Cheryl Reed at email@example.com or (317) 396-9134.
This article was originally reported on Ice Miller’s e-Newsletter, located here.