Can I Sue an Online Answer Forum?
You generally can't sue online answer forums, just like you can't sue review websites for bad reviews posted by their users.
That's because of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA), also known as Title V of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Section 230 of the CDA says that “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."
To put it simply, you can't shoot the messenger. Federal law says providers, such as online answer forums and social media sites, are just innocent messengers. That includes platforms like:
- Quora Answers
- WordPress Comments
- Wikipedia Articles
- Buzzfeed Comments
So if you want to sue because you're unhappy with an online “answer," you generally have to go directly after the person who provided that information to these “messengers."
Most of the time, the lawsuit will be for defamation because the “answer" harms someone's reputation by saying something untruthful. To learn more, check out our article on Yelp and Defamation, which talks about how you can pursue people individually for defamation when Section 230 gets in your way of suing the big platforms.
On the other hand, this article focuses on how you can sue online answer forums and other “messengers" directly. Yes, we mentioned you generally can't sue online answer forums because of Section 230's protections, but as with all things in the law, it depends on facts and exceptions.
For example, Section 230 does not protect content providers from committing federal crimes such as hosting illegal pornography or promoting stalking, harassment, and sex trafficking. But for the most part, we leave it to the government to clean up those messes, because it's federal prosecutors who bring criminal lawsuits.
In this article, we only focus on common civil claims (private lawsuits) for which you can directly sue platforms like online answer forums. That's because Section 230 does not protect online platforms against:
- Defamatory content created by the platforms themselves
- Infringement of intellectual property (e.g. stolen music, movies, and books)
- Product liability for design defects and failures to warn of known risks
- Anti-competitive behavior (i.e. unfair content moderation by answer forums)
There are different kinds of lawyers who handle these areas of the law. Your starting point should be a personal injury lawyer (PI Attorney), especially if you think you might have a defamation or product liability case. They can provide you with legal assistance and give you a time frame and money estimate for civil suits against online answer forums.
Before You Sue: Check for Arbitration and Disclaimer Clauses
Some of these agreements restrict your ability to sue:
- An arbitration clause can state that you have to bring your complaint in front of a private decisionmaker (the “arbitrator") who is usually a retired judge or experienced attorney. That means a court with a judge and jury won't hear your case (but that doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing).
- A disclaimer clause may say that the online answer forum does not guarantee the right answers or that you won't be harmed in the course of using the website.
Keep in mind that even with arbitration and disclaimer clauses in the way, you can still bring a claim. Below, we might talk a lot about “suing," and technically that's something you do in court. But if you're forced to bring an arbitration claim, you can still pursue the same claims in arbitration that you'd otherwise be “suing" for in court.
Suing for Defamation for Answers Created by the Platform Itself
If the online answer forum actively participated in authoring the content that harms your reputation, you might actually have a shot at piercing through their Section 230 protections and suing them directly.
Keep in mind, you usually can't sue an online platform or online answer forum for defamation based on an answer, review, or other content someone posted on that platform. That kind of information would be protected by Section 230. If you're suing the internet answer forum for defamation directly, they will need to be acting as the speaker of whatever defamatory allegation that's being said about you.
This is too confusing — let's go with an example involving an imaginary startup called New York (NY). In our imaginary example, NY is an online answer forum where people submit questions and answers regarding things they learned about their high school, college, and law school classmates. Because NY is still a new company, its creators create artificial intelligence robots (online bots) to help generate submissions. The bots are owned and operated by NY itself, and NY directly trains and instructs them on what content to post.
Now, let's say you put your name into a search engine and come across an NY page all about you. It's got three different answers about you, but you only recognize two of three authors:
- You recognize John's full name in his answer which frames you as a fun person to be around.
- You're also familiar with Jane's full name in her answer which incorrectly states you're cold, boring, and you are bad at school.
- You have no idea who Bot X is, but they're listed as a third entry with an answer that wrongfully calls you a cheater, a liar, and a fraud.
Who should you sue for defamation?
- Should you sue John for saying you're a fun person, or should you sue NY for publishing his content? Neither. There's nothing defamatory being said about you on John's post.
- What about Jane's post? Should you sue her for defaming you, or can you take it up directly with NY? Well, you can't sue NY — Section 230 is a thing, remember? You'll have to pursue Jane directly (but you won't win, so leave Jane alone).
- Now Bot X's post is a real doozy, because you have no idea who it is. It turns out a buddy of yours works at NY and he spills the beans to you on their online bots. The aptly-named Bot X is actually NY's own plant! Someone at NY trained its artificial intelligence robot, Bot X, to purposefully talk smack about you. You can therefore sue Bot X.
The tort (injury claim) of defamation varies in form from state to state, but in general, to sue NY in this scenario, you'll assert the following legal elements:
- The online answer forum NY created a statement;
- The statement was published by NY on NY's own platform; and
- The statement caused injury to you;
- The statement was false,
- The statement caused you harm; and
- The statement didn't fall into a privileged category (an exception recognized by law).
Before suing, you might try sending a cease and desist letter (a “stop doing this please" letter) to NY. If they ignore your letter and fail to take down the defamatory content, it'll only strengthen your case against them if you decide to sue.
Suing for Infringement (Violation) of Intellectual Property
Intellectual property laws (IP) protect original works of authorship, including:
- Copyright — writings, songs, movies, pictures
- Trademarks —brand names and logos
- Patents — inventions
- Trade secrets — confidential information owned by you that is useful in your business
Most infringement (violation) cases on online answer forums are usually related to copyright claims. That is because most answers posted online are going to be in the form of text messages or photos. When an online answer forum enables someone else to infringe on a copyright, then the online answer forum is also liable under a theory of secondary copyright infringement, also known as vicarious infringement.
Let's go back to our example with the startup NY. Let's say a user on NY — a user who has no relationship with NY whatsoever and is acting on their own — writes out the entire first chapter of Harry Potter, word for word, in response to a question about the first part of the book.
If J. K. Rowling owns the copyright and wants to sue NY for copyright infringement, she must show:
- They own the copyright; and
- NY provided the infringer, John, with the means to violate the copyright.
In our example, NY is arguably providing the infringer with the opportunity to violate the copyright because their online answer forum allows people to submit all kinds of text messages, including the entire first chapter of Harry Potter.
The law recognizes the difficulty of an online answer forum to regulate millions if not billions of potential submissions. Even giant social media platforms like YouTube have this problem. They're not necessarily answer forums, but they're still online platforms where people can upload content that infringes on others' intellectual property rights. So what is a fair solution short of designing complicated algorithms and hiring millions of moderators (mods) to review and police all of this content?
That's where the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) comes in. The law requires online platforms, including answer forums, to take notice of cease and desist letters that warn them about potentially infringing content. Most if not all online content publishers have “DMCA Takedown Portals" that make the process even easier by allowing owners to submit copyright claims against infringing content posted to these websites by unauthorized third parties.
If an online answer forum ignores a copyright owner's cease and desist request or otherwise has no DMCA-complaint method to allow rights holders to report infringing content, they could get sued and Section 230 won't come to their rescue.
Suing for Products Liability
You can sue an online answer forum for injuries to you that result from their:
Thanks to state consumer protection laws, most states have strict product liability statutes that protect consumers against sellers of faulty products and services. State laws can vary on the elements, but in general, a product liability lawsuit will claim:
- a product distributed or sold by the online answer forum,
- found to be defective,
- that injured you,
- in the course of its intended use, and
- the defect was the direct and foreseeable cause (causation) of your injury.
Believe it or not, Snapchat got sued for this one: They used to have a video filter on their app that would respond to how fast you were moving as you were recording yourself. It was only a matter of time before someone would get hurt, and surely enough, it led to reckless driving that ended with a car crash.
In court, Snapchat argued Section 230 protects them because they're a platform for content created by third parties — Snapchat users. The court disagreed with Snapchat and found that Snapchat was responsible for designing its filter in a way that would encourage reckless behavior. The court saw this as a design flaw in Snapchat's app, and not just an error on the part of the Snapchat user who was driving behind the wheel.
Similarly, Internet Brands, the owner of Model Mayhem (a modeling-networking website), got sued for failure to warn against dangerous activity that was taking place on its website. A member on Model Mayhem was lured into a fake audition that ended up with her getting sexually assaulted. The model sued Internet Brands for failing to warn her about using the website in light of their alleged knowledge that crime had occurred on Model Mayhem in the past. A federal appeals court found that Section 230 does not protect Internet Brands against the lawsuit.
Suing for Unfair Content Moderation
If an answer forum is purposefully deleting certain answers and promoting other ones without having a good reason (e.g. to promote accuracy, safety, or other legal requirement), Section 230 might not protect them.
Unfair competition claims vary greatly across states. At the federal level, the Lanham Act prohibits false advertising which is one kind of unfair competition claim. Let's say our imaginary online answer forum startup, NY, commits the following legal elements that make it liable for false advertising under federal law:
- Through selective moderation of answers posted on its website, NY allows false or misleadingly-positive statements about Brand X to stay up, but anything bad said about Brand Y — even if true — is deleted by the mods;
- This causes actual deception to happen, meaning a large portion of the potential buyers for Brand X and Brand Y are affected by the biased deletion and non-deletion of answers on NY's platform; and
- NY's deceptive moderation practices end up affecting the purchasing decisions of Brand X and Brand Y users across the country and between states, causing potential injury to Brand Y (while benefiting Brand Y's competitor, Brand X).
Just replace Brand X and Brand Y with any two popular competing products. If an online answer forum is helping one soda brand by moderating answers in a way that hurts the soda brand's competition (i.e. other soda brands), Section 230 will not protect the answer forum from being sued by the soda brands who are injured (or even just potentially injured) by the unfair competition promoted by the platform.
You Sued and Won — Then What?
If you win your lawsuit against the online answer forum, the court may award you any one or more of the following remedies:
- Compensatory damages (actual damages) — This includes the money you lost as a result of the online answer forum's illegal conduct
- Statutory Damages - These are awards available under specific state and federal laws. For example, under federal copyright law, there may be set damages per statutory violation for copyright infringement
- Punitive damages — These are intended to punish a defendant for outrageous behavior and deter others from doing the same thing
- Court costs and attorney's fees — Money you spent on court filing fees and attorney billing may be recoverable in some circumstances, such as cases involving intellectual property infringement or copyright violations.
Let a Lawyer Take a Look at Your Case
If you're going at it on your own, good luck trying to take on big platforms that hire expensive lawyers to defend them! A personal injury attorney can look at the facts of your case and give you legal advice on whether you can get around Section 230 before you decide to sue an online answer forum. PI lawyers will usually work on contingency, meaning they won't charge you up-front or out-of-pocket, and instead, they'll take a percentage of whatever they recover for you.
Even if it turns out that Section 230 blocks your ability to sue an online answer forum, an injury lawyer can still help you take legal action against an individual person or company that may have posted an answer that was harmful to you.