Sarah Jones case: Internet giants urge Fed court to set aside decision

A federal appeals court battle could have serious consequences for the internet. At stake: whether people can post anonymous comments, or even negative reviews of businesses.

It's long been assumed that the owners and operators of websites like Facebook or TripAdvisor or eBay aren't liable for their users comments, but a ruling by a federal judge in Ohio -- in a case involving a former National Football League cheerleader and a gossip website -- may suggest otherwise, and the internet giants are fighting back.

The legal fight started when a website called TheDirty.com posted anonymous false comments implying that former Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader Sarah Jones slept with the entire team -- and had not one, but two, sexually transmitted diseases.

When the website's owner refused to remove the posts, Jones sued and won $338,000 in damages. But what started as a fight between a cheerleader and a gossip website is turning into a major battle over internet freedom.

David Gingras, attorney for TheDirty.com, said, "This case has the potential to make websites, basically no longer be allowed to let users say anything they want to."

And that's why the nation's top internet companies, including AOL, eBay, Facebook, Google, Linkedin, Microsoft, Tumblr, Twitter, and Zynga, are urging a federal appeals court to set aside the decision holding the website liable.

They argue the decision -- the first of its kind -- could force them to "change their business models or curtail their services in significant ways." By restricting third-party comments, negative reviews, postings or tweets.

Gingras said, "If a website is responsible for what users post, then they are really going to restrict everything users submit."

But Jones's attorney Eric Deters says this case is different, because the owner of TheDirty.com acted as an editor, selecting which submissions went up on the site and even making comments of his own.

Deters said, "If you just provide a platform where people can post, you have nothing to worry about. If you actually control what goes up, what comes down, and edit it, you got a problem, and you have to make sure that you don't publish defamation."

CBS News' Jan Crawford added on "CBS This Morning," that Jones is going to file court papers by Friday arguing her case is really narrow and these internet companies and social media platforms don't control the comment, so the appeals court will be hearing the case likely early next year, with a decision in the months to come.

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