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Court: eBay's off the hook over feedback

The auction site can't be forced to take down allegedly libelous or false statements posted in profile comments, a California appeals court has ruled.

Be careful when reading feedback left in online auctions: eBay and similar Web sites are not required to remove information that's false or even libelous, a court has decided.

A California appeals court ruled last week that eBay cannot be forced to remove allegedly defamatory information posted to the popular auction site by users.

A 1996 federal law shields eBay and similar "interactive computer services," the appeals court said on Thursday. "Plaintiff is, in effect, asking for what, in established libel law, would be akin to a retraction. However, (the law) precludes liability in the first place."

This legal dispute started as a typical online tiff. eBay user Roger Grace bought some items from eBay seller Tim Neeley. Grace left a negative comment in Neeley's feedback area, which can be viewed by all visitors and is intended to create a kind of reputation for participants. Neeley retaliated by typing in a note in Grace's profile: "complaint: should be banned from ebay!!!! dishonest all the way!!!!"

After eBay refused to remove the negative feedback from Grace's profile, Grace sued the San Jose, Calif., auction giant for allegedly publishing false and defamatory information about him, in violation of California libel laws.

The federal law cited in the ruling was enacted as part of the Communications Decency Act, itself part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. It 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."

In a court decision from August 2003, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said that the law protected Web site operators from being sued for fabricated profiles on online dating sites.