It was one of the wilder stories from the final days of the presidential campaign: The New York Post on October 14 reported on the contents of a laptop computer, reportedly belonging to Hunter Biden, the son of the now-President-Elect. The laptop, which had been dropped off at a computer shop in Delaware but never picked up, contained emails about the younger Biden’s overseas business ties, and also contained embarrassing photos. The computer shop owner also acknowledged that he had provided the laptop to the president’s attorney, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Much of the media coverage of the episode centered on ancillary aspects of the story: Twitter, for a time, blocked links to the New York Post story, while a Facebook executive admitted that the platform had reduced distribution of the story. There was much speculation that, since Giuliani was known to have visited Ukraine in search of dirt on Hunter Biden, the laptop story had somehow been the fruit of that expedition. And subsequent reporting showed that there were doubts about the story within the New York Post itself, with reporters refusing to put their byline on the piece and others getting credit despite having little to do with it.
Meanwhile, there were humorous Yelp reviews, by “users” of the computer shop jokingly complaining that the owner had taken their laptop and given it to their family’s political enemies.
It was in the news earlier this month that the shop in Delaware, The Mac Shop, had closed. And now, the owner of the shop, John Paul Mac Isaac, has filed suit, against Twitter, claiming defamation. Isaac is seeking $500 million in punitive damages.
The suit claims that Twitter, in blocking distribution of the Post story, said that it was doing so due to its policy against “distribution of hacked material.” Therefore, the plaintiff is upset that Twitter implied that he, Isaac, is a hacker, a term that is “widely viewed as disparaging, particularly when said about someone who owns a computer repair business.” Those Yelp reviews, in fact, are attached as exhibits in the suit.
Twitter, however, does not appear to have ever directly accused John Paul Mac Isaac or The Mac Shop of hacking. The lawsuit also complains that the New York Post identified his shop in its report, although the newspaper is not a defendant in the lawsuit.
The suit has been filed in the Southern District of Florida, because Twitter “maintains an office and performs substantial activities in the state of Florida.”
Hunter Biden acknowledged last month that he is under investigation for issues related to his taxes.
Is this is a case that touches on Section 230, the now-controversial law that shields websites from liability from things their users post? Not quite, since the suit is aimed at the actions of Twitter itself, rather than those of any one user.
“This defamation lawsuit against Twitter from the owner of the computer repair shop who had Hunter Biden’s laptop is frivolous, but the argument is not *quite* as frivolous as I expected when I saw the headline,” journalist and Section 230 expert Mike Masnick said on Twitter.
“I expected the lawsuit to be over things people said on Twitter (barred by 230). But it’s actually over Twitter’s “speech” (saying the NY Post article was blocked under its ‘hacked materials’ policy). That’s still frivolous. The speech is clearly not defamatory.”
Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.