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Search Engines Dodge Angry Locksmith Claims

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) - A Northern Virginia area locksmith who blames Internet search engines for his loss of revenue cannot pursue claims against Google, YellowBook and Ziplocal, a federal judge ruled.

Baldino's Lock and Key Service Inc. sued the search engines in the Alexandria, Va. Federal Court, claiming the online directories negligently direct business away from it and to "criminally fraudulent locksmithing" enterprises.

These enterprises are identified as defendants "Does 1-25" in the complaint, although the plaintiff asserts that more than half the locksmiths doing business in Virginia and Maryland are unlicensed, and therefore illegal companies.

U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton acknowledged that Baldino's has built a reputable locksmith business with decades of service to the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area, and that its owners were honestly upset that "[w]ith the creation of the Internet, Baldino's saw a drastic decrease in revenue," something they attribute "to the ability of unlicensed and illegal locksmiths to advertise on the Internet."

That said, Hilton dismissed the lawsuit, finding that the Communications Decency Act effectively renders search engines immune to such litigation.

"The plain language of the statute creates a federal immunity to any cause of action that would make an interactive computer service liable for content originating with a third-party information content provider."

Under the Act, interactive computer services include websites that do not generate original content but rather allow users to access the website in order to post information.

"The immunity extends to all information posted that does not originate with the defendant as an information content provider," Hilton said. In fact, he noted, "A publishing website is immune under the CDA even when given notice that it has published false information."

"Defendants are interactive computer services," he wrote. "While each operates their own website, and each provides limited original content, the content at issue here is created by third-parties -- the advertising locksmiths -- and not by Defendants. By providing a platform for third-party users to publish information, Defendants have allowed locksmiths access to a portal to post information and the speech is not properly attributable to them.

"Absent an exception, Defendants are immune under Section 230 as the publishing website, despite their knowledge of the false information," Hilton said.

In this case none of the possible exceptions -- that the material violates the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, federal criminal law or intellectual property law -- applied.

Hilton went on to dismiss the plaintiff's RICO claims because Baldino's failed to show it had standing under the statute.

"The thrust of Baldino's evidence against Defendants is its showing of locksmith results that greatly exceed the lists of named, licensed locksmiths in Virginia and Maryland. Rather than having relief on the false listings, Baldino's purports to know precisely who is, and who is not, a licensed locksmith. Detrimental reliance by Baldino's, as opposed to an unaware consumer, is a logical impossibility. Therefore, Plaintiff does not have standing to adequately plead the elements required under the RICO statutes," he wrote.

An attorney for the plaintiff Andrew Bisulca declined to comment on the suit.

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