Fifth Circuit Holds No Safety Exception to Communications Decency Act ISP Immunity
By Anna Volftsun — Edited by Nicola Carah
Doe v. MySpace, Inc.
Fifth Circuit, May 16, 2008, No. 07-50345
On May 16, 2008, the Fifth Circuit unanimously upheld the Western District of Texas, finding Section 230(c)(1) of the Communications Decency Act (“CDA 230”) barred a parent’s claims for negligence and gross negligence against the social networking site, MySpace.com. The suit was brought on behalf of Doe’s 13-year-old daughter, who misrepresented her age to create a profile on MySpace, and was subsequently contacted and allegedly sexually assaulted by a 19-year-old MySpace user.
Julie Doe, a 13-year-old minor, represented her age as 18 when creating a MySpace profile. MySpace defaults all 14-year-old and 15-year-old profiles to “private,” which restricts profile access to confirmed “friends” only. But as a result of Doe’s misrepresentation, her profile was made “public” and viewable by the all other MySpace users, including 19-year-old Pete Solis. Solis contacted Doe, the two exchanged phone numbers, and after communicating several times off-line, arranged a meeting at which Solis allegedly sexually assaulted Doe.
Eric Goldman of the Technology and Marketing Law Blog sees this as a victory for proponents of strong CDA 230 immunity. He notes that several cases leading up to the decision, including Fair Housing Council of San Fernando Valley v. Roommates.com, Mazur v. eBay, and Doe v. FriendFinder, Inc., had evinced a trend towards loosening the immunity provided to internet providers under the statute. While Goldman hopes the MySpace decision will discourage plaintiffs from continuing to bring claims against websites for failing to protect or police its users, he remains “flummoxed by the number of cases [he is] seeing involving teens making poor (and, in some cases, life-altering) decisions using MySpace.”
Sam Bayard of the Citizen Media Law Project is more ambivalent about the outcome. While he believes that the CDA 230 is an important protection for internet service providers, he thinks the decision may have gone too far. He paraphrases John Palfrey of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, who noted in an internal email:
“MySpace is a powerful corporate intermediary that has broad ability to control the networked public space it makes available to minors and adults alike, and it doesn’t necessarily serve any of the congressional objectives behind CDA.”
Full Text of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 at the US Government Printing Office.