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Court Validates Angie’s List Business Model of Consumer Protection Under the Communications Decency Act

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 Web site, 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 online 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's business model, which is a cornerstone of consumer protection on the Internet.
           
For nearly 15 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 Web site 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 Web site 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 Web site operator is not considered the “speaker” of any information placed on its Web site 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 Web site. 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 Web site.
 
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 Web site 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 Web site operators who operate within the requirements of the Act.
© 2003-2019, Ice Miller LLP

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Melanie E. Harris, Litigation Attorney, Ice Miller Law Firm

Melanie Harris is a partner at Ice Miller, and is a member of Ice Miller's Business Litigation Group. She focuses on litigating business disputes, and drafting and enforcing restrictive covenants and confidentiality agreements in the employment, sale of business and business-to-business contexts.  She also advises clients on litigation avoidance, competitive business issues and strategies to protect their business interests.  For example, Ms. Harris's experience includes the following:

  • Representing clients in litigated business disputes,...
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Michael Wukmer, Litigation Attorney, Ice Miller Law Firm
Partner

Michael Wukmer is a partner in Ice Miller's Litigation Group. He advises clients concerning simple and complex disputes of all types and handles arbitration and court proceedings including trials and appeals.

Michael also works closely with attorneys in other Ice Miller practice groups such as Corporate and Private Equity, Data Security and Privacy, Food and Agribusiness, Public Affairs, Intellectual Property, Municipal Finance and Real Estate.

Michael is best described as a no-nonsense litigator who helps clients work towards a quick and aggressive solution to a business problem. Much of his practice consists of emergency business disputes in which he is asked to help protect and preserve the company's assets or to prosecute or defend "bet the company" lawsuits with competitors. One significant area of his practice is advising clients concerning the protection of intellectual property, trade secrets and other confidential or proprietary information, restrictive employment covenants, non-solicitation agreements, unfair competition and corporate raiding. Another significant area of his practice is advising clients concerning disputes between business owners, such as shareholder or partnership disputes and breaches of fiduciary duty, among others. His litigation experience also includes a multitude of other areas of law such as intellectual property disputes, business torts, communications, general corporate and contract disputes, health care issues, state and municipal government, land use, professional liability, product liability, real estate, securities fraud and technology.

Michael also provides general advice, risk management and guidance to clients in various industries and professions, such as technology and internet companies, manufacturers, distributors, retailers, health care providers and networks and other professionals such as accountants, attorneys, brokerage firms and others. On one extreme, he has assisted clients in complex business transactions and has developed comprehensive, national and international restrictive covenant programs. On the other hand, he has quietly advised individuals concerning personal legal and ethical problems. Michael enjoys conducting informal and practical in-house seminars for clients to introduce them to or reacquaint them with important legal issues.

Although he prefers to practice law and to participate in events without a lot of public attention, Michael  does write and speak regularly on various issues for clients and for members of the bar. He is also an advocate in mentoring other attorneys at the Firm and helping them grow their own practices.

Michael is a native of Dayton, Ohio. He received a Bachelor of Arts in English literature from the University of Cincinnati in 1981 and his juris doctor from the University of Cincinnati College of Law in 1984. While in law school, he served as executive editor and was a student contributor for the University of Cincinnati Law Review. He joined Ice Miller in 1984.

He has been very active in neighborhood, sports and school functions. He enjoys attending and promoting charitable events and traveling around the world. He is an avid wine enthusiast.   

He is admitted to practice law in the state of Indiana and in numerous federal courts.

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George Gasper, Ice Miller, Litigation lawyer
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George Gasper is a partner in Ice Miller's Business Litigation Group and a member of the Firm’s Internet of Things industry group. He is an experienced litigator focused on resolving disputes to help clients achieve strategic objectives and gain a competitive advantage. His practice focuses on antitrust law, advertising and other unfair competition issues, securities law, trademark enforcement, franchise disputes, and products liability. He also counsels clients on several aspects of developing government regulations, including those impacting the Internet of Things....

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