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Even in Net litigation, it's all about location

Attorney Eric J. Sinrod says Web publishers and surfers can learn--and take comfort--from the dismissed DontDateHimGirl.com suit.

    The Web site DontDateHimGirl.com allows women to make anonymous postings about specific men.

    So it was that a defamation lawsuit got filed with respect to statements made on the site about one particular man. But the case was just dismissed for failure of personal jurisdiction, offering a signal lesson in why the details of the law matter. Let's take a closer look at the facts of the case.

    On May 24, 2006, a profile of the plaintiff appeared on the DontDateHimGirl site. Additional postings about the man appeared later. In a lawsuit filed in state court in Pennsylvania, the plaintiff claimed that the profiles were false and misrepresented him as being a herpes-ridden gay or bisexual who had transmitted a sexually transmitted disease and had sired different children.

    The court determined that whether the use of an Internet Web site permits it to exercise jurisdiction over an out-of-state company under Pennsylvania's Long-Arm Act required the court to look to a "sliding scale" of contacts. Namely, the more contacts by the defendants with the state of Pennsylvania, the more likely it is appropriate for the court to decide that it has personal jurisdiction over the defendants.

    The court then embarked on an analysis of those contacts in this case. The court first noted that the server for the DontDateHimGirl.com site is located in Florida, not Pennsylvania, and that all Web site operations take place in Florida. The court also concluded that the site does not specifically solicit residents of Pennsylvania to post profiles on the site. However, the defendants apparently are aware that Pennsylvania residents will post profiles on the site.

    The court concluded that the defendants do not perform a "significant amount of commercial business over the Internet" as directly impacting Pennsylvania sufficient to warrant personal jurisdiction over the defendants in the state.

    The court also found that while DontDateHimGirl.com maintains an online store on its server where users can purchase clothing and accessory items, the store has made sales to only six Pennsylvania residents, for less than five percent of the total sales of the store.

    Next, the court noted that DontDateHimGirl.com obtains revenue through advertising, with the primary source being the Google AdSense program. Pursuant to this program, advertisers enter into contracts with Google to place their advertisements. Google places advertisements on numerous Web sites, including DontDateHimGirl.com, by way of contracts with the site operators.

    Google makes the selection as to which sites it will run advertisements. However, advertisers may generally describe the types of sites where the advertisements preferably should be placed. Google pays site operators in this instance based on "clicks" on the link taking the viewer from the Web site of DontDateHimGirl.com to the site of the advertiser. Google cannot determine the amount of money paid on profiles of people identified with Pennsylvania.

    After analyzing the foregoing facts, the court concluded that the defendants do not perform a "significant amount of commercial business over the Internet" as directly impacting Pennsylvania sufficient to warrant personal jurisdiction over the defendants in the state. Indeed, the court viewed the defendants' activities as no more than "general advertising with the added convenience of an online registry."

    The court recognized that the DontDateHimGirl.com Web site, like other sites, is accessible to anyone connected to the Internet anywhere in the world. The court rejected the notion that a defendant can be hauled into court in any state for any controversy, regardless of contacts with that particular state. This would violate principles of due process, according to the court.

    This reasoning makes abundant sense. It also should provide comfort to companies and individuals. They only need answer to legal allegations in states where they have sufficiently substantial contacts to justify further legal proceedings.