Communications Decency Act shields Backpage from liability for violation of federal sex trafficking law

backpage

Three Jane Doe plaintiffs, who alleged they were victims of sex trafficking, filed suit against online classified ad provider Backpage.com (“Backpage”), asserting that Backpage violated the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (“TVPRA”) by structuring its website to facilitate sex trafficking and implementing rules and processes designed to actually encourage sex trafficking.

The district court dismissed the TVPRA claims for failure to state a claim, holding that the Communications Decency Act, at 47 U.S.C. §230, provided immunity from the claims. Plaintiffs sought review with the First Circuit. On appeal, the court affirmed the lower court’s dismissal.

Section 230 principally shields website operators from being “treated as the publisher or speaker” of material posted by users of the site. In this case, the court held that plaintiffs’ claims were barred because the TVPRA claims “necessarily require[d] that the defendant be treated as the publisher or speaker of content provide by another.” Since the plaintiffs were trafficked by means of the third party advertisements on Backpage, there was no harm to them but for the content of the postings.

The court rejected plaintiffs’ attempts to characterize Backpage’s actions as “an affirmative course of conduct” distinct from the exercise of the “traditional publishing or editorial functions” of a website owner. The choice of what words or phrases to be displayed on the site, the decision not to reduce misinformation by changing its policies, and the decisions in structuring its website and posting requirements, in the court’s view, were traditional publisher functions entitled to Section 230 protection.

Does v. Backpage.com, LLC, No. 15-1724 (1st Cir., March 14, 2016)

Evan Brown is a Chicago attorney advising enterprises on important aspects of technology law, including software development, technology and content licensing, and general privacy issues.

See also:
Seventh Circuit sides with Backpage in free speech suit against sheriff

Website operator was too involved with development of content to be immune under Section 230

Defendant started up a website to — in her own words — provide a place for others to have a dialogue and post information about their experiences at Plaintiff’s youth drug rehab facilities. Plaintiff found the content of Defendant’s website offensive, and sued for defamation and intentional interference with prospective economic advantage. Defendant filed a motion to strike under California’s Anti-SLAPP law. The court denied the motion.

In denying the Anti-SLAPP motion, the court found, among other things, that Plaintiff had established a probability of prevailing on most of its claims. This chance of prevailing withstood Defendant’s argument that she was shielded from liability by the Communications Decency Act.

This Act provides that “[n]o 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.” 47 U.S.C. § 230(c)(1).

Defendant acknowledged that her defense was relevant only to the extent that she was alleging that comments by third parties on her website were defamatory.

She quoted Batzel v. Smith, 333 F.3d 1018 (9th Cir. 2008) to assert that “the exclusion of ‘publisher’ liability necessarily precludes liability for exercising the usual prerogative of publishers to choose among proffered material and to edit the material published while retaining its basic form and message.” She argued that she was entitled to Section 230 immunity because she was an exempt publisher — she either simply posted others’ statements or made minor edits to those statements before posting.

The court did not agree with Defendant’s characterization of her publishing activities.

It found that her posts would not lead a visitor to believe that she was quoting third parties. Rather, in the court’s view, Defendant adopted the statements of others and used them to create her comments on the website. She posted her own articles, and summarized the statements of others.

Moreover, Defendant did more than simply post whatever information third parties provided. She elicited statements through two surveys that contained specific questions to gather information about specific issues. The court found this to disqualify Defendant from Section 230 immunity under the holding of Fair Housing Council v. Roommates.com, LLC, 521 F.3d 1157 (9th Cir. 2008) (wherein the website operator was not immune under the Communications Decency Act because it created discriminatory questions and choice of answers).

Diamond Ranch Academy, Inc. v. Filer, 2016 WL 633351 (D. Utah, February 17, 2016)

Evan Brown is a Chicago attorney advising enterprises on important aspects of technology law, including software development, technology and content licensing, and general privacy issues.

Newspaper not liable for alleged defamatory letter to editor published online

The Appellate Court of Illinois has sided in favor of a local newspaper in a defamation lawsuit brought against the paper over a reader’s allegedly defamatory letter to the editor. The court held that the Communciations Decency Act (at 47 U.S.C. 230) “absolved” the newspaper of liability over this appearance of third party content on the newspaper’s website.

Plaintiff — a lawyer and self-identified civil rights advocate — sent several letters to local businesses claiming those businesses did not have enough handicapped parking spaces. Instead of merely asking the businesses to create those parking spaces, he demanded each one pay him $5,000 or face a lawsuit.

One local resident thought plaintiff’s demands were greedy and extortionate, and wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper covering the story. The newspaper posted the letter online. Both the newspaper and the letter’s author found themselves as defendants in plaintiff’s defamation lawsuit.

The letter-writer settled with plaintiff, but the newspaper stayed in as a defendant and moved to dismiss, arguing that federal law immunized it from liability for content provided by the third party letter-writer.

The lower court dismissed the defamation claim against the newspaper, holding that the Communications Decency Act (at 47 U.S.C. §230) protected the newspaper from liability for the third party letter-writer’s comments posted on the newspaper’s website.

Plaintiff sought review with the Appellate Court of Illinois. On appeal, the court affirmed the dismissal.

The Communications Decency Act (at 47 U.S.C §230(c)(1)) says that “[n]o 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.” The appellate court found that the leter-writer was another information content provider that placed comments on the newspaper’s website. Therefore, it held that the Communications Decency Act “absolved” the newspaper from responsibility.

Straw v. Streamwood Chamber of Commerce, 2015 IL App (1st) 143094-U (September 29, 2015)

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago helping clients manage issues involving technology and new media.

When is it okay to use social media to make fun of people?

There is news from California that discusses a Facebook page called 530 Fatties that was created to collect photos of and poke fun at obese people. It’s a rude project, and sets the context for discussing some intriguing legal and normative issues.

Apparently the site collects photos that are taken in public. One generally doesn’t have a privacy interest in being photographed while in public places. And that seems pretty straightforward if you stop and think about it — you’re in public after all. But should technology change that legal analysis? Mobile devices with good cameras connected to high speed broadband networks make creation, sharing and shaming much easier than it used to be. A population equipped with these means essentially turns all public space into a panopticon. Does that mean the individual should be given more of something-like-privacy when in public? If you think that’s crazy, consider it in light of what Justice Sotomayor wrote in her concurrence in the 2012 case of U.S. v. Jones: “I would ask whether people reasonably expect that their movements will be recorded and aggregated in a manner that enables [one] to ascertain, more or less at will, their political and religious beliefs, sexual habits, and so on.”

Apart from privacy harms, what else is at play here? For the same reasons that mobile cameras + social media jeopardizes traditional privacy assurances, the combination can magnify the emotional harms against a person. The public shaming that modern technology occasions can inflict deeper wounds because of the greater spatial and temporal characteristics of the medium. One can now easily distribute a photo or other content to countless individuals, and since the web means the end of forgetting, that content may be around for much longer than the typical human memory.

Against these concerns are the free speech interests of the speaking parties. In the U.S. especially, it’s hardwired into our sensibilities that each of us has great freedom to speak and otherwise express ourselves. The traditional First Amendment analysis will protect speech — even if it offends — unless there is something truly unlawful about it. For example, there is no free speech right to defame, to distribute obscene materials, or to use “fighting words.” Certain forms of harassment fall into the category of unprotected speech. How should we examine the role that technology plays in moving what would otherwise be playground-like bullying (like calling someone a fatty) to unlawful speech that can subject one to civil or even criminal liability? Is the impact that technology’s use makes even a valid issue to discuss?

Finally, we should examine the responsibility of the intermediaries here. A social media platform generally is going to be protected by the Communications Decency Act at 47 USC 230 from liability for third party content. But we should discuss the roles of the intermediary in terms other than pure legal ones. Many social media platforms are proactive in taking down otherwise lawful content that has the tendency to offend. The pervasiveness of social media underscores the power that these platforms have to shape normative values around what is appropriate behavior among individuals. This power is indeed potentially greater than any legal or governmental power to constrain the generation and distribution of content.

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago advising clients on matters dealing with technology, the internet and new media.

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