McKEOWN, Circuit Judge:
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act ("CDA") "immunizes providers of interactive computer services against liability arising from content created by third parties." Fair Hous. Council of San Fernando Valley v. Roommates.Com, LLC, 521 F.3d 1157, 1162 (9th Cir. 2008) (en banc) (footnote omitted) (citing 47 U.S.C. § 230(c)). This case pushes the envelope of creative pleading in an effort to work around § 230.
The complaint centers on two negative business reviews posted on Yelp's website
Kimzey apparently hoped to plead around the CDA to advance the same basic argument that the statute plainly bars: that Yelp published user-generated speech that was harmful to Kimzey. See Barnes v. Yahoo!, Inc., 570 F.3d 1096, 1105 (9th Cir. 2009) (holding that Yahoo! was immune from liability for negligently declining to remove indecent third-party content). We decline to open the door to such artful skirting of the CDA's safe harbor provision. This case is in some sense a simple matter of a complaint that failed to allege facts sufficient to state a claim that is plausible on its face. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009). But it is also more consequential than that, given congressional recognition that the Internet serves as a "forum for a true diversity of ... myriad avenues for intellectual activity" and "ha[s] flourished ... with a minimum of government regulation." 47 U.S.C. § 230(a)(3)-(4). Kimzey's effort to circumvent the CDA's protections through "creative" pleading fails, and the district court did not err in granting Yelp's motion to dismiss.
Yelp describes its websites and mobile applications as "provid[ing] a forum for members of the public — free of charge — to read and write reviews about local businesses, government services, and other entities." Kimzey owns a locksmith business, Redmond Locksmith (aka "Redmond Mobile Locksmith"), that operates in the greater Seattle metropolitan area.
In September 2011, a Yelp user identified as "Sarah K" posted a review of Kimzey's business on the Yelp page for Redmond Mobile Locksmith:
Yelp's administrative records showed that Sarah K was not associated with any internet protocol address associated with Yelp, nor was she ever employed by Yelp.
Kimzey filed a pro se complaint in the district court alleging that Yelp is liable for the reviews by Sarah K under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act ("RICO"), 18 U.S.C. § 1964(c); the Washington Consumer Protection Act, Wash. Rev. Code § 19.86.020; and Washington's libel law. Specifically, the complaint alleged that Yelp "caused to appear a Libelous Per Se statement ... on ... Google." By "caused to appear," Kimzey seems to assert that Yelp found the review on another website and posted it as a comment on its own website. Kimzey asserted that Yelp went on to publish the statements by Sarah K as "advertisements" or as a "promotion" on Google as part of a "Traffic Acquisition" program. After clicking on the "promotion," a Google user would be "directed to Yelp.com and then shown Yelp sponsored [sic] advertising." At the center of this allegedly creative process was a star rating, which Kimzey alleged "Yelp has developed and created" by "design[ing] the star image and creat[ing] the color."
Kimzey also alleged that the content of at least the first review posted by Sarah K bore the indicia of an "illegal scheme ... operated by the EL-AD Group, which uses thousands of fictitious locksmith business names on the Internet in every major US city, to promote themselves." The connection between Yelp and this claimed scheme was not clearly articulated in the complaint: Kimzey alleged that ELAD's purported statement "transitioned to Yelp.com and was linked to the Plaintiffs [sic] business name" where it then "transitioned to Google.com as a Yelp promotion."
Yelp moved to strike the complaint under Washington's anti-SLAPP statute, Wash. Rev. Code § 4.24.525, and to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The district court granted the motion to dismiss, finding that § 230 of the CDA "immunizes [Yelp] from the entirety of [Kimzey]'s lawsuit" and that Kimzey "has not alleged non-conclusory factual content that is plausibly suggestive of a claim entitling him to relief." The district court declined to rule on the anti-SLAPP motion.
Section 230(c)(1) of the CDA "only protects from liability (1) a provider or user of an interactive computer service (2) whom a plaintiff seeks to treat, under a state law cause of action, as a publisher or speaker (3) of information provided by another information content provider." Barnes, 570 F.3d at 1100-01 (footnotes omitted). Yelp is plainly a provider of an "interactive computer service," see 47 U.S.C. § 230(f)(2), a term that we interpret "expansive[ly]" under the CDA, Carafano v. Metrosplash.com, Inc., 339 F.3d 1119, 1123 (9th Cir. 2003). As we observed in Roommates.Com, "[t]oday, the most common interactive computer services are websites." 521 F.3d at 1162 n.6. There is likewise no question that Kimzey's claims are premised on Yelp's publication of Sarah K's statements and star rating.
Although the complaint is far from lucid and the opening brief cryptic to the point of opacity, we discern two discrete theories of Yelp's alleged authorship. The first, and the simplest, theory is that Yelp created the review, possibly by copying a review previously posted on another website. This echoes the complaint in our recent opinion in Levitt, 765 F.3d 1123. There, a group of business owners alleged that "Yelp created negative reviews of their businesses and manipulated review and ratings content to induce them to purchase advertising through Yelp." Id. at 1127.
We did not reach the CDA issue in Levitt, but we explained that for a plaintiff to "make a plausible claim that Yelp authored [a review], it must plead facts tending to demonstrate that the ... review was not, as is usual, authored by a user." Id. at 1135. A careful reading of the complaint reveals that Kimzey never specifically alleged that Yelp authored or created the content of the statements posted under the aegis of Sarah K, but rather that Yelp adopted them from another website and transformed them into its own stylized promotions on Yelp and Google. We have no trouble in this case concluding that threadbare allegations of fabrication of statements are implausible on their face and are insufficient to avoid immunity under the CDA. See Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (holding that a complaint must contain "sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to `state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face'" (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007))). Were it otherwise, CDA immunity could be avoided simply by reciting a common line
It cannot be the case that the CDA and its purpose of promoting the "free exchange of information and ideas over the Internet" could be so casually eviscerated. See Carafano, 339 F.3d at 1122. This is not to say that CDA immunity extends to content created or developed by an interactive computer service; it does not. See Roommates.Com, 521 F.3d at 1162-63. But the immunity in the CDA is broad enough to require plaintiffs alleging such a theory to state the facts plausibly suggesting the defendant fabricated content under a third party's identity. See Carafano, 339 F.3d at 1123. Here there are no such facts.
The second, and more convoluted, theory is that Yelp transformed the review by Sarah K into its own "advertisement" or "promotion" on Google and featured a unique star-rating system as the mantlepiece of its creation. As this case illustrates, it is not difficult to allege in a complaint that a publisher of information engaged in creation by transformation. Here, for instance, Kimzey alleged that Yelp designed and created its signature star-rating system, and thereby served as "author" of the one-star rating given by Sarah K. Kimzey also alleged that Yelp "republishe[d]" the statements on Google as "newly developed advertisements," and in that fashion became the actual author of that iteration of the content. These characterizations have superficial appeal, but they extend the concept of an "information content provider" too far and would render the CDA's immunity provisions meaningless.
The CDA defines "information content provider" as "any person or entity that is responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation or development of information provided through the Internet or any other interactive computer service." 47 U.S.C. § 230(f)(3). The meanings of the words "creation" and "development" are hardly self evident in the online world, and our cases have struggled with determining their scope. See, e.g., Roommates.Com, 521 F.3d at 1171 (clarifying the language used in Carafano because it was "unduly broad" and recognizing that a website could be a developer of content where it encouraged users to provide illegal content); Carafano, 339 F.3d at 1124 (holding that a dating site could not "be considered an `information content provider' under the [CDA] because no profile has any content until a user actively creates it"); Batzel v. Smith, 333 F.3d 1018, 1031 (9th Cir. 2003) (concluding that "development of information" requires "something more substantial than merely editing portions of an e-mail and selecting material for publication"). These cases establish that a website may lose immunity under the CDA by making a material contribution to the creation or development of content.
It is clear here, however, that neither of the allegedly creative actions taken by Yelp falls within our interpretation of the terms "creation" or "development" of information. Even were we convinced that a
Our foundation is Carafano, where we held that the mere fact that an interactive computer service "classifies user characteristics... and collects responses to ... questions ... does not transform [it] into a developer of the underlying misinformation." 339 F.3d at 1124 (internal quotation marks omitted). Carafano cited Gentry v. eBay, Inc., a case from the California Court of Appeal, in which the court examined the eBay rating system that displayed user feedback through both a star symbol and a color code. See 339 F.3d at 1124 (citing 99 Cal.App.4th 816, 121 Cal.Rptr.2d 703 (2002)). Apropos of Yelp's star rating, the eBay rating system was "simply a representation of the amount of such positive information received by other users of eBay's web site" and was thus protected by § 230. Gentry, 121 Cal.Rptr. at 717, 535 P.2d 1171; see also Levitt v. Yelp! Inc., Nos. C-10-1321 EMC, C-10-2351 EMC, ___ F.3d ___, ___, 2011 WL 5079526, *7 (N.D. Cal. Oct. 26, 2011) (applying Gentry's logic to Yelp and concluding that "[s]ince the aggregate rating ... is likewise based on user-generated data, the Court finds that aspect of Gentry persuasive"), affirmed on other grounds by Levitt, 765 F.3d 1123.
We fail to see how Yelp's rating system, which is based on rating inputs from third parties and which reduces this information into a single, aggregate metric is anything other than user-generated data. Indeed, the star-rating system is best characterized as the kind of "neutral tool" operating on "voluntary inputs" that we determined did not amount to content development or creation in Roommates.Com. 521 F.3d at 1172; see also Klayman v. Zuckerberg, 753 F.3d 1354, 1358 (D.C. Cir. 2014) (holding that a "website does not create or develop content when it merely provides a neutral means by which third parties can post information of their own independent choosing online").
Nor do Kimzey's arguments that Yelp can be held liable for "republishing" the same content as advertisements or promotions on Google survive close scrutiny.