In what is likely to be seen as a watershed moment for the application of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (the “CDA”), the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has released an opinion in Barnes v. Yahoo that has the potential to dramatically increase the cost of defending social media and computer service providers.

The Barnes case centered around the posting of defamatory “fake” profiles on Yahoo’s social networking pages. The profiles, which appeared to be from Ms. Barnes but were in fact created by her ex-boyfriend, included several pictures of her in the nude. Ms. Barnes asked Yahoo to remove the profiles, but Yahoo took no action until local media did a story on the events, wherein Yahoo promised to remove the fake profiles. Two months after that, the profiles still appeared on the Internet, and Ms. Barnes sued Yahoo.

Yahoo sought a motion to dismiss based on the immunity provided to it by the CDA. The dismissal was granted and Ms. Barnes appealed to the Ninth Circuit. In deciding to remand the case to the District Court, the Ninth Circuit did two things that can be problematic for the future of the CDA.

First, it held that a promissory estoppel-like claim can survive CDA immunity (at least at the motion to dismiss stage). At its core, a promissory estoppel claim requires someone to make a promise, and someone to rely upon that promise to his/her detriment. The court explained that Yahoo could be seen as having made a promise to Ms. Barnes, as part of its privacy policy and terms of service, and reiterated through local media, that it would take down profiles such as the one at issue. The making of a promise would be an activity that would fall outside of the CDA’s scope. Thus, a promissory estoppel claim can survive a CDA-based motion to dismiss.

The second, and potentially more problematic, result of this decision is the treatment of the CDA as an affirmative defense, and the basis for lawsuit immunity. Although this may seem like a small detail, the proverbial devil is in the detail. If the CDA is a source of lawsuit immunity, then this supports a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim (a 12(b)(6) motion). A 12(b)(6) motion must be dispensed with before the filing of answer, and before the opening of discovery. An affirmative defense, on the other hand, is dealt with by a motion for a judgment on the pleadings. For this type of motion, the defendant must file an answer along with the affirmative defense. The filing of an answer is where things go awry. Upon the filing of an answer, the court can open discovery. If the case was presided over by an overly cautious judge, discovery could be mandated prior to the issuance of a ruling on the summary judgment motion. Given that discovery can be expensive and time consuming, it is not difficult to imagine that the potential costs of exercising CDA immunity may have greatly increased.

Why This Matters: This case should be of great interest to purveyors of social media and those who seek to tap into the power of social networks. Not only does this provide a wake-up call as to what the consequences are of the statements in privacy and terms-of-service policies, but it also defines a way to avoid future promissory estoppel-like claims. Promissory estoppel requires a promise and reasonable reliance – if it is unreasonable to rely on the promise, then the estoppel claim may fail. It is possible that an artful drafting of a terms-of-service document can make this kind of reliance unreasonable, and social media and other interactive website purveyors should think about whether their privacy policies need revision of this type.

Notwithstanding revisions to one’s policies, the case is also noteworthy because of the shift in interpretation of the CDA. If the CDA is more properly an affirmative defense than the basis for lawsuit immunity, then the potential cost of tapping into the CDA’s protections may rise significantly.