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Digital Civil Rights Group Stands with Yelp in Lawsuit

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The Electronic Frontier Foundation is urging a federal appeals court to block an attempt by disgruntled businesses to hold online forums, including Yelp, responsible for customer's reviews.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Friday, the EFF argues that the court should uphold the strong protections for hosts of forums in existing laws that foster free speech online, and protect online service providers from liability for what users say about businesses.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA 230) protects online service providers from liability and lawsuits over user-generated content, except in very narrow circumstances where the providers created or developed content themselves. In this case, several businesses filed suit against Yelp, claiming without factual support that the popular review site manipulated and manufactured reviews in order to coerce businesses to advertise on the website. A lower court already found that mere speculation of interference with public reviews was insufficient to evade the broad protection Congress created for online forums, and granted Yelp's motion to dismiss the case. In its amicus brief, EFF argued that lowering the standards for when a forum like Yelp has to be dragged through litigation would effectively chill online speech.

"The broad protections provided by CDA 230 are one of the main reasons we have so much speech online," said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Matt Zimmerman. "If online service providers like Yelp could be held liable for material posted by any one of their millions of users merely upon thin claims of "manipulation," providers would feel pressured to censor or eliminate forums altogether. The result is fewer places for people to participate online and a loss all of us who rely on user reviews and other user-generated material.

"The goal of Congress in enacting CDA 230 was clear: to ensure the Internet is a robust platform for users' free speech," said Senior Staff Attorney Marcia Hofmann. "Users post millions of reviews on Yelp each year, but sites like this wouldn't exist without CDA 230?s protections. We're asking the appeals court to make sure that sites like Yelp continue to thrive and remain vigorous forums for Internet users to share opinions and recommendations."

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