No, You Can't Sue Grindr Because It Hooked You Up With A 13-Year-Old For Sex

from the take-responsibility-for-your-own-actions dept

We've discussed the importance of Section 230 of the CDA many times here on Techdirt, and once again it's being used to stop someone from trying to blame an internet service for someone's own actions. In this case, the app Grindr. Through a somewhat complicated set of details, a threesome was organized via Grindr's GrindrX service, with one of the participants being a 13-year-old boy. One of the two adult men who took part in the threesome, William Sapanaro Jr., was arrested and "charged with sexual assault and endangering the welfare of a child in connection with the aforementioned sexual encounter." He's still facing a long prison sentence. In response, Sapanaro then sought to sue Grindr for facilitating the hookup, pointing out that the service had terms of service that required participants to be of age.

Thankfully, the court quickly got this right, tossing out the lawsuit and noting that Grindr is protected by Section 230 of the CDA, and cannot be held liable for the actions of its users.
For the reasons set forth below, the Court holds that Plaintiff’s claim is barred by the Communications Decency Act. Furthermore, the Court finds that Plaintiff’s claims of negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress fail as a matter of law. Plaintiff’s complaint will be dismissed with prejudice.
The court cites multiple CDA 230 decisions that highlight how the immunity from liability clearly applies here. Also, it rejects Sapanaro's attempt to point to the famous "roommates.com" ruling. That was one of the very rare cases where a court rejected a CDA 230 defense, arguing that because Roommates.com actively asked people for preferences related to race, it violated fair housing laws. We were worried about that chipping away of Section 230 at the time. Indeed, since then, almost everyone looking to ignore Section 230 points to the Roommates case in their lawsuits. But, thankfully, almost every court ruling that discusses Roommates.com points out why it doesn't apply -- and this is yet another case where that's true (the court refers to that case as "Fair Housing" after the plaintiff, rather than the defendant Roommates.com):
The Court does not find the comparison to Fair Housing persuasive. Even assuming Plaintiff’s factual assertions to be true, as the Court must, the questions that Defendant poses to its subscribers when creating a profile substantively differ from those posed by the defendant in Fair Housing in one significant respect: they do not develop content that facially violates a state or federal statute. Defendant’s online questionnaire asks users to enter information about themselves, but these questions are facially benign. Plaintiff does not allege – nor does the Court find – that Defendants’ questionnaire solicits from users information that is illegal.

This distinction is readily apparent in Fair Housing. There, the Court specifically noted that “[a] dating website that requires users to enter their sex, race, religion and marital status through drop-down menus . . . does not contribute to any alleged illegality,” since “[i]t is perfectly legal to discriminate along those lines in dating, and thus there can be no claim based solely on the content of these questions.” ... Similarly, in this case, Defendant merely “provid[ed] neutral tools to carry out what may be unlawful or illicit [conduct]”; under Fair Housing, such conduct does not amount to “development” under section 230 of the CDA.
The court also laughs off the argument that CDA 230 was designed to be narrowly interpreted. We now have many, many years of rulings that say otherwise, so that was clearly a non-starter. Finally, the court rightly notes that holding sites liable for what users say or do would clearly chill free speech:
Courts have promulgated Congress’s intent by applying CDA immunity according to its own clear terms.... This Court must do the same, and it is not this Court’s function or role to substitute its judgment for the policy choices made by Congress in promoting communications on the internet. Holding interactive service providers liable for third-party communications would have chilling implications for free speech on the internet. Specifically, if social network hosts are faced with liability every time third-party communications on their networks result in harm, they are left with two extreme courses of action if they wish to ensure insulation from liability: either over-police their networks, taking down communications that might ultimately be harmless; or, strip users of the ability to post communications altogether.
It's good to see yet another clean Section 230 win -- and it's kind of crazy that these kinds of cases are still being brought.
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Filed Under: cda, intermediary liability, section 230, william sapanaro
Companies: grindr


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  1. icon
    Mike Masnick (profile), 19 Mar 2015 @ 2:15pm

    Re: So why is Twitter beginning to police abuse?

    Section 230 is mere statute (common law always trumps it) and in any event only applies when the platform is objectively neutral.

    This is false.

    Here at Techdirt, it being a business, if Masnick uses his power as administrator / moderator and becomes a partisan to, say, exclude certain persons or aid in harassing them, then he'd lose all protections.

    Also false.

    100% false. In fact, CDA 230 makes it clear that the platform can do whatever moderation it wants and not lose liability. In fact, that was the original point of CDA 230 -- to *encourage* moderation in a way that would not rid a site of liability protections. Read 230(c)(2)(A) which says:

    "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected"

    So you're misinformed. It is not only for neutral parties, and voluntarily choosing to moderate does not shed anyone of Section 230 protections. At all.

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