Federal Court: Service Providers Can’t Be Sued Over User-Generated Content, No Matter How Creatively The Allegations Are Framed
from the even-without-Section-230,-this-would-have-been-a-losing-effort dept
Another Section 230 case has made its way into the federal court system. Of course, the plaintiffs really doesn’t want this to be a Section 230 case, since their lawsuit is predicated on content created by users of two chat apps.
The lawsuit alleged that the developers of YOLO (an anonymous chat app) and LMK (an add-on app for Snapchat that gives users more customization options) are somehow responsible for the acts of other app users. From the recent federal court decision [PDF]:
Plaintiffs allege they received harassing messages in response to their benign posts on Defendants’ applications and did not receive comparable messages on other platforms in which user identities were revealed. Plaintiffs allege that YOLO had pop-up notifications that stated individuals’ identities would be revealed if they harassed other users and LightSpace [the designer of the LMK app] similarly stated it would take reports of bullying it received seriously and potentially send those reports to law enforcement. Plaintiffs reference several specific explicit messages they received on these platforms and also aver more generally that they received harassing messages on both applications. Plaintiffs allege that YOLO in particular did not respond to reports of harassment and that a decedent of one of the Plaintiffs unsuccessfully attempted to search online for ways to “reveal” the identities of individuals who had previously sent him harassing messages on YOLO the night before his death.
As you can infer from the last sentence of this summary, there’s a tragedy at the center of this case, an apparent suicide the survivors believe was a response to online harassment via these apps. While it’s understandable the survivors are attempting to right a wrong via this litigation, this isn’t the sort of wrong that can be addressed by taking legal action against app developers who did not create the harassing content.
Section 230 immunizes the app developers from lawsuits brought over content created by users. That’s why this lawsuit was framed as alleged violations of consumer laws from all over the United States. It’s a cause of action grab bag.
As stated above, the FAC brings twelve causes of action under state law against Defendants; namely: (1) strict product liability based on a design defect; (2) strict product liability based on a failure to warn; (3) negligence; (4) fraudulent misrepresentation; (5) negligent misrepresentation; (6) unjust enrichment; (7) violation of the Oregon Unlawful Trade Practices Act; (7) violation of the New York General Business Law § 349; (8) violation of the New York General Business Law § 350; (9) violation of the Colorado Consumer Protection Act; (10) violation of the Pennsylvania Unfair Trade Practices Law; (11) violation of the Minnesota False Statement in Advertising Act; and (12) violation of California Business and Professions Code §§ 17200 & 17500.
None of that matters, though.
[T]he court finds that each of these causes of action is predicated on the theory that Defendants violated various state laws by failing to adequately regulate end-users’ abusive messaging, and is therefore barred by Section 230.
That’s the correct finding. And that addresses all of the causes of action, some of which are clearly stretched past the point of credibility… like the plaintiffs’ insistence that allowing users to create anonymous accounts is a “defective design feature.” This presumes two dumb and disingenuous things: that offering anonymity to users is irresponsible, and that knowing who these abusive users were would deter them from being abusive.
So, that’s it for now for this case. It will likely be appealed. If it is, it will be headed to the Ninth Circuit Appeals Court — a court that has said some rather strange things about Section 230 immunity in recent years. Or the plaintiffs may wait to see what the Supreme Court has to say about Section 230 in the Gonzalez v. Google case it recently granted cert to. Depending on what the justices decide, this case may still have plenty of life left in it, despite being dismissed with prejudice by this court.