from the because-we-said-so dept
Let's start by making one thing clear: the trafficking of these girls is horrific and one hopes that all legal recourse is being used against those who actually were engaged in the trafficking. But targeting Backpage makes no more sense than targeting Ford because one of its cars was used as the getaway vehicle in a bank robbery. And yet... the court rules otherwise. And it doesn't give any good reason at all, other than because it said so. The court doesn't ignore Section 230. It properly notes that Section 230 protects service providers, but not those who develop the content. And then it decides that Backpage may have created rules that "induce sex trafficking," and thus it could be seen as developing the content. Here's the key part of the ruling:
Viewing J.S. 's allegations in the light most favorable to J.S., as we must at this stage, J.S. alleged facts that, if proved true, would show that Backpage did more than simply maintain neutral policies prohibiting or limiting certain content. Those allegations include that (1) "Backpage.com ... has intentionally developed its website to require information that allows and encourages ... illegal trade to occur through its website, including the illegal trafficking of underage girls," (2) "Backpage.com has developed content requirements that it knows will allow pimps and prostitutes to evade law enforcement," (3) "Backpage.com knows that the foregoing content requirements are a fraud and a ruse that is aimed at helping pimps, prostitutes, and Backpage.com evade law enforcement by giving the [false] appearance that Backpage.com does not allow sex trafficking on its website," (4) "the content requirements are nothing more than a method developed by Backpage.com to allow pimps, prostitutes, and Backpage.com to evade law enforcement for illegal sex trafficking, including the trafficking of minors for sex," ( 5) Backpage' s "content requirements are specifically designed to control the nature and context of those advertisements so that pimps can continue to use Backpage.com to traffic in sex, including the trafficking of children, and so Backpage.com can continue to profit from those advertisements," and (6) Backpage has a "substantial role in creating the content and context of the advertisements on its website." ... According to J.S., Backpage' s advertisement posting rules were not simply neutral policies prohibiting or limiting certain content but were instead ~'specifically designed ... so that pimps can continue to use Backpage.com to traffic in sex." ...In short, because the plaintiffs claim that -- even though Backpage's terms of service directly state that you are not allowed to use the service for illegal activities such as trafficking or prostitution -- because they believe Backpage really wants that, it means that it's somehow crossed the line and helped to "develop" the content. That's bizarre and legally wrong. I imagine this will reach a federal court which will destroy this decision.
Given J. S. 's allegations, it does not appear "'beyond a reasonable doubt that no facts exist that would justify recovery"' in this case, and, therefore, dismissal of J.S.'s claims under CR 12(b)(6) is not appropriate.... It is important to ascertain whether in fact Backpage designed its posting rules to induce sex trafficking to determine whether Backpage is subject to suit under the CDA because "a website helps to develop unlawful content, and thus falls within the exception to section 230, if it contributes materially to the alleged illegality of the conduct." ... Fact-finding on this issue is warranted.
There's a concurring ruling from Justice Charles Wiggins that is even more confused and completely misreads Section 230 and the volumes of caselaw that make it clear that 230 grants full immunity to service providers. Wiggins insists that's not true. Because he's wrong.
I write separately to emphasize that this holding implies that the plaintiffs' claims do not treat Backpage.com as the publisher or speaker of another's information under the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA), 47 U.S.C. § 230(c). The dissent misreads this statute to provide "immunity" to '"interactive service providers.'" Dissent at 1. This reading is irreconcilable with the actual language of the statute, which does not include the term or any synonym of "immunity." Subsection 230(c)(1) instead provides a narrower protection from liability: the plain language of the statute creates a defense when there is (1) a provider or user of an interactive computer service (2) whom a plaintiff seeks to treat, under a state law cause of action, as a publisher or speaker of information (3) that is provided by another information content provider.This is just wrong. It's a really twisted reading of Section 230 that no court has made before. Wiggins is trying to argue that they're not blaming Backpage for the sex trafficking, but merely for the rules that induce sex trafficking (even though the company goes way beyond what's legally necessary to insist that no sex trafficking is allowed on the platform). Basically, he's arguing that if people think you mean one thing, but say another, Section 230 safe harbors might no longer apply to you. Because.
Thus, when the cause of action does not treat an intermediary as a publisher or speaker, subsection 230(c)(1) cannot be read to protect that intermediary from liability. Plaintiffs' claims that Backpage.com created ucontent rules" specifically designed to induce sex trafficking and evade law enforcement do not treat Backpage.com as the publisher or speaker of another's information. Accordingly, I join the majority opinion.
There's a strong dissent from Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud pointing out how ridiculous it is that things got this far.
The majority holds that J.S.'s complaint would support a claim that Backpage functions as an "information content provider" because it alleged that Backpage maintains content requirements for advertisements posted on its website that surreptitiously guide pimps on how to post illegal, exploitative ads. But J.S.'s complaint clearly alleges that another content provider, not Backpage, provided the content for the advertisements. J.S. thus seeks to hold Backpage liable as a publisher or speaker of that information. Subsection 230(c)(l) therefore bars J.S.'s claims.That dissent also trashes Wiggins' attempt to parse a difference between "immunity" and a more limited liability protection:
Given the allegations in this particular case, the difference in terminology is irrelevant. The question is how far the subsection 230( c )(1) protection reaches, and courts interpreting subsection 230(c)(1)'s language uniformly hold that its protection for publishers is "quite robust." They apply an expansive definition of '"interactive computer service provider"' and a rather restrictive definition of "information content provider." Carafano v. Metrosplash.com .... They hold that the law provides immunity if the plaintiff alleges that the defendant violated a duty deriving from the defendant's status or conduct as a publisher or speaker. Barnes v. Yahoo!... As long as a third party "'willingly provides the essential published content, the interactive service provider receives full immunity regardless of the specific editing or selection process."' Corbis Corp. v. Amazon.com.... The inquiry is whether the defendant "function[ed] as an 'information content provider' for the portion of the statement or publication at issue." Carafano...; see also Nemet Chevrolet, Ltd. v. Consumeraffairs.com ... (affirming district court's dismissal of complaint where plaintiff failed to show that defendant "was responsible for the creation or development. of the allegedly defamatory content at issue").The dissent further notes that the majority decision mistakenly takes J.S.'s assertions that Backpage is the developer of content as true, even though it's clearly not the case under the law:
This allegation-that Backpage designed its posting rules to induce sex trafficking-might prove true. Indeed, we presume it is true when evaluating the sufficiency of J. S. 's complaint. But adopting such posting rules still does not make Backpage a "content provider" within the meaning of the CDA, even under the Ninth Circuit case upon which J.S., the majority, and the concurrence place principal reliance....It seems highly likely that Backpage will appeal and will win.
In fact, courts have consistently rejected the contention that defendants "develop" content by maintaining neutral policies prohibiting or limiting certain content. For example, in Dart v. Craigslist... which the majority cites at 7, the plaintiff claimed that even though Craigslist, an Internet classifieds service, prohibited illegal content on its website, users frequently posted ads promising sex for money.... Consequently, the plaintiff asserted that Craigslist "ma[de] it easier for prostitutes, pimps, and patrons to conduct business." ... A federal court in Illinois dismissed the claims... explaining, "Plaintiffs argument that Craigslist causes or induces illegal content is further undercut by the fact that Craigslist repeatedly warns users not to post such content. While we accept as true for the purposes of this motion plaintiffs allegation that users routinely flout Craigslist's guidelines, it is not because Craigslist has caused them to do so. Or if it has, it is only 'in the sense that no one could post [unlawful content] if craigslist did not offer a forum."' ... see also Chi. Lawyers'... ("Nothing in the service craigslist offers induces anyone to post any particular listing."); Roommates, ... ("To be sure, the website provided neutral tools, which the anonymous dastard used to publish the libel, but the website did absolutely nothing to encourage the posting of defamatory content-indeed, the defamatory posting was contrary to the website's express policies.")....
The facts in Dart are analogous to the facts here. J.S. alleges that pimps-not Backpage-created and uploaded the ads at issue... ("adult pimps ... posted advertisements for the girls") ... ("adult pimps ... create[ d] ... and then uploaded [the] advertisements of S.L. onto . . . Backpage.com"). Nothing in Backpage's policies obligated users to flout Backpage's express content requirements or to post unlawful content. J. S. 's allegations indicate that the pimps chose the content ultimately used in the advertisements.... The actual "information" at issue consisted of the particular wording and photos that the pimps provided....
Thus, holding Backpage liable would punish it for publishing third party content, and the CDA prohibits such liability.