The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (en banc) has just issued a very interesting opinion interpreting a federal law providing immunity from liability for online speech — the Communications Decency Act (CDA), 47 U.S.C. § 230. The case is Fair Housing Council v. Roommates.com, LLC, 2008 WL 879293 (9th Cir. April 3, 2008) (en banc).
The CDA § 230 states: “No 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.” Most courts have interpreted § 230 to immunize the operators of websites or blogs against distributor liability for comments posted by others.
I have been critical about the way that this statute has been interpreted:
Unfortunately, courts are interpreting Section 230 so broadly as to provide too much immunity, eliminating the incentive to foster a balance between speech and privacy. The way courts are using Section 230 exalts free speech to the detriment of privacy and reputation. As a result, a host of websites have arisen that encourage others to post gossip and rumors as well as to engage in online shaming. These websites thrive under Section 230’s broad immunity.
Websites such as JuicyCampus, which encourage and facilitate gossip and rumors about college students, exploit § 230 immunity.
The Roommates.com case suggests a limit to § 230 immunity that some might believe creates a way to hold sites like JuicyCamus.com responsible for the gossip and rumors they solicit. In the end, I don’t believe that Roommates.com will save the day and penetrate § 230’s armor for sites like JuicyCampus.
Roommates.com allows users to post listings for roommates. When a user creates a listing, Roomates.com requests particular information from users, requesting preferences for gender, sexual orientation, and kids. Much of this information is solicited via drop down menus which list the various choices. Users can also put additional comments in a section that allows for an open-ended narrative. Two Fair Housing Councils in California sued Roommates contending that the site violated the Fair Housing Act (FHA), 42 U.S.C. § 3601 and state housing discrimination statutes. The FHA prohibits any “statement . . . with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates . . . an intention to make [a] preferenc,e limitation, or discrimination” based on certain categories (such as gender or sexual orientation). California law has a related restriction.
Roommates.com contended that it was immune under the CDA § 230. It claimed that it just provided options for its users and is not the “information content provider.” But the Ninth Circuit concluded that § 230 immunity didn’t apply. According to the statute, an “information content provider” is one who is “responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation or development of” the content. Writing for the court, Chief Judge Kozinski noted:
The FHA makes it unlawful to ask certain discriminatory questions for a very good reason: Unlawful questions solicit (a.k.a. “develop”) unlawful answers. Not only does Roommate ask these questions, Roommate makes answering the discriminatory questions a condition of doing business. This is no different from a real estate broker in real life saying, “Tell me whether you’re Jewish or you can find yourself another broker.” When a business enterprise extracts such information from potential customers as a condition of accepting them as clients, it is no stretch to say that the enterprise is responsible, at least in part, for developing that information.
The court also held that Roommates.com was not immune for its search system, which allowed users to search according to discriminatory criteria:
For example, a subscriber who self-identifies as a “Gay male” will not receive email notifications of new housing opportunities supplied by owners who limit the universe of acceptable tenants to “Straight male(s),” “Straight female(s)” and “Lesbian(s).” Similarly, subscribers with children will not be notified of new listings where the owner specifies “no children.” Councils charge that limiting the information a subscriber can access based on that subscriber’s protected status violates the Fair Housing Act and state housing discrimination laws. It is, Councils allege, no different from a real estate broker saying to a client: “Sorry, sir, but I can’t show you any listings on this block because you are [gay/female/black/a parent].” If such screening is prohibited when practiced in person or by telephone, we see no reason why Congress would have wanted to make it lawful to profit from it online.
Roommate’s search function is similarly designed to steer users based on discriminatory criteria. Roommate’s search engine thus differs materially from generic search engines such as Google, Yahoo! and MSN Live Search, in that Roommate designed its system to use allegedly unlawful criteria so as to limit the results of each search, and to force users to participate in its discriminatory process.
What are the implications of the court’s holding? What about sites like JuicyCampus.com that encourage gossip and rumor? Are they immune under the court’s reasoning?
While I believe that sites like JuicyCampus.com shouldn’t have as broad an immunity under the CDA § 230 as they do, I don’t believe that they’d lose § 230 immunity even under the holding of Roommates.com. The Ninth Circuit notes:
Roommate does not merely provide a framework that could be utilized for proper or improper purposes; rather, Roommate’s work in developing the discriminatory questions, discriminatory answers and discriminatory search mechanism is directly related to the alleged illegality of the site. . . . Roommate is directly involved with developing and enforcing a system that subjects subscribers to allegedly discriminatory housing practices.
However, the site would be immune for what people wrote in the “additional comments” section:
The fact that Roommate encourages subscribers to provide something in response to the prompt is not enough to make it a “develop[er]” of the information under the common-sense interpretation of the term we adopt today. It is entirely consistent with Roommate’s business model to have subscribers disclose as much about themselves and their preferences as they are willing to provide. But Roommate does not tell subscribers what kind of information they should or must include as “Additional Comments,” and certainly does not encourage or enhance any discriminatory content created by users. Its simple, generic prompt does not make it a developer of the information posted.
Although JuicyCampus.com wants students to spread gossip and rumor, not all gossip and rumor are defamatory or invasive of privacy. Only some of the comments on JuicyCampus are tortious. I believe that the gossip and rumor solicited by JuicyCampus is too open-ended to lose immunity under the Roommates.com decision. As much as I’d like to see JuicyCampus be held responsible for the content it facilitates, I don’t think that the Roommates.com decision is knight coming to the rescue.
One final word on Roommates.com. The case involves a major difficulty with applying § 230 to some Web 2.0 applications — it is often hard to figure out exactly who is responsible for providing content. I blogged about this problem a while ago. Often, sites solicit content in standardized formats; they have fields for entering information; they structure the way people input data to the site. They thus play a role in shaping the content users supply. Who, exactly, then is the content provider? The answer is very tricky, but a lot hinges upon it. Roommates.com doesn’t provide a clear rule that addresses this issue — a lot remains to be wrangled out in cases to come.
For a thoughtful analysis and critique of the case, see Eric Goldman’s post at Technology & Marketing Law Blog.
Originally Posted at Concurring Opinions
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This post was authored by Professor Daniel J. Solove, who through TeachPrivacy develops computer-based privacy training, data security training, HIPAA training, and many other forms of awareness training on privacy and security topics. Professor Solove also posts at his blog at LinkedIn. His blog has more than 1 million followers.