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The Ninth Circuit Appeals Court has resuscitated a lawsuit against Malwarebytes filed by litigious software company Enigma. Enigma Software tends to sue people who say bad things about its antivirus offerings and since there’s a lot of people doing that, the company seems to spend a fair amount of time in court.

Enigma ran into the Section 230 wall in the lower court by claiming Malwarebytes’ designation of its software as a threat was an unfair business practice. It said Malwarebytes scans were locating its offerings on people’s computers, informing them the software was shady, and quarantining it. Enigma alleged this was anti-competitive. And if it wasn’t that, it was probably some sort of trademark thing, blah blah blah Lanham Act. (This claim sneaks into a lot of lawsuits involving Section 230 protections and Enigma tried this tactic in a defamation lawsuit it filed against BleepingComputer. It’s a dodge, not a cognizable legal argument.)

Malwarebytes prevailed at the district court level by citing a Ninth Circuit Appeals Court ruling finding that filtering software or services is also protected by Section 230 of the CDA. In the cited case, antivirus software company Kaspersky secured a dismissal from a lawsuit brought by an aggrieved adware purveyor. That decision said any material a provider feels is objectionable (in this case, adware) can be removed by the provider.

That’s what the court said then. What it’s saying now is something different, and that appears to be only because the Ninth Circuit feels Malwarebytes and Enigma Software are actually competitors, even if Enigma has yet to earn the same amount of respect Malwarebytes has. From the decision [PDF]:

This case differs from Zango in that here the parties are competitors. In this appeal Enigma contends that the “otherwise objectionable” catchall is not broad enough to encompass a provider’s objection to a rival’s software in order to suppress competition. Enigma points to Judge Fisher’s concurrence in Zango warning against an overly expansive interpretation of the provision that could lead to anticompetitive results. We heed that warning and reverse the district court’s decision that read Zango to require such an interpretation. We hold that the phrase “otherwise objectionable” does not include software that the provider finds objectionable for anticompetitive reasons.

That’s a pretty broad interpretation of a decision the Ninth Circuit says it’s not going to interpret broadly. Malwarebytes has plenty of legitimate reasons to protect its users from Enigma’s offerings that go beyond neutering a competitor. Enigma’s reputation seems to have improved over the last couple of years, but its history is littered with rogue software designations, questionable customer service tactics, and, of course, the tendency to sue anyone who doesn’t view Enigma as positively as Enigma views itself.

So, designating this competitor’s software as questionable isn’t necessarily about keeping a competitor off users’ computers. That subtlety is lost in this reversal by the Ninth Circuit, which feels Enigma has plausibly alleged anti-competitive practices.

It also (perhaps more correctly) finds that Enigma can continue pursuing its Lanham Act claims about trademark infringement. The court (correctly) notes Section 230 does not provide immunity against intellectual property claims. Not that the false advertising claim raised here has any merit. It doesn’t. But being right on this point doesn’t make the decision any better. Litigants hoping to dodge Section 230 immunity tend to throw in trademark-related claims as filler, hoping this bogus deployment of their intellectual property protections will allow them to survive a motion to dismiss. It works here. So that means litigants will keep cramming these bullshit claims into their bullshit lawsuits.

Not only does this make things worse for defendants in the circuit (and there will be a lot of them considering how many tech companies are located in California) but it ignores one crucial aspect of Malwarebytes’ designation of Enigma software as dangerous: Malwarebytes flagged Enigma’s software in response to users’ preferences.

Malwarebytes and Enigma have been direct competitors since 2008, the year of Malwarebytes’s inception. In their first eight years as competitors, neither Enigma nor Malwarebytes flagged the other’s software as threatening or unwanted. In late 2016, however, Malwarebytes revised its PUP-detection criteria to include any program that, according to Malwarebytes, users did not seem to like.

After the revision, Malwarebytes’s software immediately began flagging Enigma’s most popular programs— RegHunter and SpyHunter—as PUPs. Thereafter, anytime a user with Malwarebytes’s software tried to download those Enigma programs, the user was alerted of a security risk and, according to Enigma’s complaint, the download was prohibited, i.e. Malwarebytes “quarantined” the programs.

This move was predicated on users’ preferences, which puts it about as close to user-generated content as possible, without allowing users to directly control Malwarebytes’ threat database.

The end result is what matters, at least in the Appeals Court’s limited analysis. Section 230 was supposed to increase competitiveness, not limit it, so…

We cannot accept Malwarebytes’s position, as it appears contrary to CDA’s history and purpose. Congress expressly provided that the CDA aims “to preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the Internet and other interactive computer services” and to “remove disincentives for the development and utilization of blocking and filtering technologies.” § 230(b)(2)–(3). Congress said it gave providers discretion to identify objectionable content in large part to protect competition, not suppress it. Id. In other words, Congress wanted to encourage the development of filtration technologies, not to enable software developers to drive each other out of business.

On the plus side, it also doesn’t buy Enigma’s argument that Section 230 immunity only involves the policing of material that is sexual and/or violent in nature. It covers more than that, but does not — at least in this opinion — protect the blocking of competitors’ software offerings.

The dissent says this is the wrong decision to make. Section 230’s language does cover Malwarebytes’ flagging of Enigma software. If the law needs to be fixed, legislators need to fix it. The court shouldn’t litter the circuit with bad precedent in lieu of Congressional action.

The majority opinion seeks to limit the statute based on the fact that the parties are competitors. See Majority Opinion, p. 4. However, nothing in the statutory provisions or our majority opinion in Zango supports such a distinction. Rather the “broad language” of the Act specifically encompasses “any action voluntarily taken [by a provider] to restrict access to . . . material that the provider . . . considers to be . . . otherwise objectionable.” 47 U.S.C. § 230(c)(2)(A) (emphasis added). Under the language of the Act, so long as the provider’s action is taken to remove “otherwise objectionable” material, the restriction of access is immunized. See id. The majority’s real complaint is not that the district court construed the statute too broadly, but that the statute is written too broadly. However, that defect, if it is a defect, is one beyond our authority to correct.

But that’s not what happened here. Enigma will get to drag this litigation out even longer. It may not even win it. But it will serve as a warning to others tempted to flag Enigma’s offerings as less-than-desirable. And that’s probably the only win it really needs.

Filed Under: 9th circuit, competition, content moderation, lanham act, malware, section 230
Companies: enigma, malwarebytes

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