Second Circuit Denies Section 230 Immunity for Acts of Affiliate Marketers
The Second Circuit became the third federal appellate court ever to deny immunity under Section 230 of the Communications Act, 47 U.S.C. § 230, which provides broad protection for content supplied to websites by their users. Federal Trade Commission v. LeadClick Media, LLC, --- F.3d ---- (2d Cir. Sept. 27, 2016). The court held that the operator of an affiliate marketing network, LeadClick Media, LLC, unlawfully participated in the use of deceptive websites to market weight loss products, in violation of Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, 15 U.S.C. § 45.
LeadClick, now out of business, operated an affiliate marketing network that connected its customers with third-party publishers (“affiliates”) that advertised the customers’ products, such as by email marketing, banner ads, search-engine placement, and creating advertising websites.
LeadClick solicited LeanSpa, an online retailer that sold purported weight-loss products, to use its services. Under the parties’ agreement, LeanSpa paid LeadClick every time a consumer clicked on an affiliate ad and signed up for LeanSpa’s “free trial.” LeadClick paid a percentage of this payment to the affiliate.
Some LeadClick affiliates operated fake news websites, which looked like genuine news sites and falsely suggested that “reporters” had tested LeanSpa’s products, offering comments by “customers” who had used products. LeadClick knew such sites were common in the industry and some of affiliates were using them, approved the use of the sites, and provided affiliates content to use on the sites. Affiliates were required to submit proposed marketing pages to LeadClick for approval, and were told by LeadClick that fake news sites are “totally fine.” LeadClick also purchased ad space from well-known websites, which it resold, sometimes to affiliates.
The district court granted the FTC summary judgment. The Court of Appeals affirmed.
Section 230 Ruling
Section 230 states that “[n]o 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.” 47 U.S.C. § 230(c)(1). As the Second Circuit acknowledged, courts have generally afforded websites broad immunity under this provision, barring claims that seek to hold websites responsible for content provided by their users. Courts have held that Section 230 shields conduct from liability if (1) defendant is the provider or user of an interactive computer service; (2) the claim is based on information provided by another information content provider; and (3) the claim treats the defendant as the publisher or speaker of that information. The court raised issues as to all three elements.
First, in dicta, the court cast doubt on whether LeadClick is an “interactive service provider,” 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 and such systems operated or services offered by libraries or educational institutions.” 47 U.S.C. § 230(f)(2). Although the definition was “indeed broad,” the court held, it was “not convinced” LeadClick “provides computer access in the sense of an internet service provider, website exchange system, online message board, or search engine.” It raised novel issues, the court held, as to whether the definition fit LeadClick because LeadClick’s provision of services was “wholly unrelated to its potential liability,” and whether LeadClick’s service is “the type of service that Congress intended to protect” under Section 230. Ultimately, however, the court found it need not reach this element of immunity since it went on to find the other elements lacking.
Second, the court held LeadClick was an “information content provider” because it recruited affiliates for the LeanSpa account that used fake news sites, paid them to advertise LeanSpa products, knowing such sites were common, suggested edits to content on the sites, and bought advertising space from real news sites to resell it to affiliates for use on fake sites. The court concluded “LeadClick’s role in managing the affiliate network far exceeded that of neutral assistance. Instead, it participated in the development of its affiliates’ deceptive websites, materially contributing to [the content’s] alleged unlawfulness.” The Second Circuit joined other courts in endorsing the “material contribution” standard to evaluate the second element of Section 230 immunity, i.e., an interactive service provider must materially contribute to the content at issue — or “assist in the development of what made the content unlawful” — to be an information content provider itself.
Third, the court held the FTC sought to hold LeadClick liable not as the publisher or speaker of another’s content but “for its own deceptive acts or practices—for directly participating in the deceptive scheme by providing edits to affiliate webpages, for purchasing media space on real news sites with the intent to resell that space to its affiliates using fake news sites, and because it had the authority to control those affiliates and allowed them to publish deceptive statements.” This holding rested on the court’s finding that LeadClick was “being held accountable for its own deceptive acts or practices…not…from its status as a publisher or speaker” of third-party content.