The government's attempts to regulate the internet are almost always misguided, but section 230 of the Communications Decency Act stands out as a rare instance of foresight, as it specifies that website proprietors aren't, in general, legally liable for content posted by users. As more and more sites are built on user-generated content, this protection has only grown in importance. However, a decision handed down today by the Ninth Circuit may narrow section 230 protection (via Above The Law) to some extent. At issue is whether the site Roommates.com is on the hook for ads posted by its users that violate the Fair Housing Act by specifying the race and gender of the desired roommate. If you'll recall, Craigslist faced the exact same issue, but was cleared, so you might think that the same would apply in here. However, in this case, the court ruled that the site is not necessarily protected because it provides a form that specifically invites users to fill out a potentially illegal roommate preference. The court reasoned, by analogy, that a hypothetical site called harrassthem.com would not warrant protection if it specifically asked that its users furnish defamatory information on individuals. However, the court did say that Roommates.com could not be held liable for comments on the site that were separate from the forms it offered to users. It's still not clear what's going to happen here, or what this means for other sites that depend on section 230 immunity, though it would seem to have little effect on most sites that simply have an open comments section. As for Roommates.com, it's likely it will try to avoid the problem by letting its users post free-form roommate ads, so that it's not suggesting anything illegal.
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