Total read time: 4-5 minutes.
Myspace wins again.
The social networking giant (Facebook qualifies as a super-giant in this case) garnered another important victory for interactive service providers, when the California Court of Appeal, Second District held that:
(1) Myspace, as a publisher of third-party content, had immunity under the Communications Decency Act, and,
(2) Myspace was not an "information content provider."
Minor females (through their parents or guardians) brought suit against Myspace for negligence, gross negligence, and strict product liability claims, alleging that they were sexually assaulted by adult men they met on Myspace. The "Julie DOES", as they are called (I guess "Jane" has become far too ubiquitous), alleged that Myspace should have instituted "reasonable, basic safety precautions" to protect these minors from sexual predators.
Myspace filed a demurrer to the original Complaint, arguing that the Complaint failed to state sufficient facts to state a cause of action due to the applicability of Section 230. The trial court sustained the demurrer with leave to amend to allow the Plaintiffs to plead around the defense, if possible.
A First Amended Complaint was filed and Myspace demurred once again on the same ground, only this time the trial court sustained the demurrer without leave to amend and dismissed the First Amended Complaint.
The issue before the Court of Appeal was whether an internet web server (Myspace) could be held liable when a minor is sexually assaulted by an adult she met on its website?
The Appellate Court said NO.
Appellants’ central argument was that their Complaint did not treat Myspace as a "publisher" as that term is understood in relation to section 230. They argued that section 230 only applies to claims "stemming from harms caused by the defendant’s republication of inherently offensive or harmful content." If the words themselves are not actionable, under their reasoning, then section 230 does not apply.
The Appellate Court looked first to federal authority and the legislative intent behind section 230. It deemed the federal authority "consistent," and "persuasive," including Zeran and Doe v. Myspace, Inc. (5th Cir. 2008) 528 F.3d, in favor of extending immunity. It was clear that the Court gave great weight to the 5th Circuit’s ruling.
The Court also pointed out that the legislative intent behind section 230 was to "’to remove disincentives for the development and utilization of blocking and filtering technologies that empower parents to restrict their children’s access to objectionable or inappropriate online material."’
In order to justify its decision based upon its reliance on federal authority, the Court looked to Barrett, Delfino, and Gentry to show that California appellate courts have consistently extended immunity to negligence claims like the one at hand.
The next part of the Court’s holding related to whether Myspace was liable as a content provider for content provided by a third-party user. The Appellants argued that Myspace was a content provider because Myspace collaborated with the alleged sexual predators to create their profiles, and allowed the adult men to search Myspace’s system to find particular profiles sharing particular characteristics, to then find and locate the minor females.
The Court rejected this argument because it would require Myspace to "ensure that sexual predators do not gain access to minors on its Web site. That type of activity-to restrict or make available certain material is expressly covered by section 230." In reaching its decision, the Court distinguished Roommates for two reasons. First, Appellants did not allege that Myspace’s profile questions were discriminatory or illegal. And second, nor did they allege that Myspace required its members to fill-out their profiles as a condition to using Myspace.
This decision is a big victory for Myspace and other websites who were worried about negligence claims based on a failure to protect their users from acts/conduct/words of other users.
The moral of the story is: California Courts will continue to interpret section 230 BROADLY.