Roommate.com reversed

The Ninth Circuit reversed the lower court in Fair Housing Council v. Roommate.com, limiting Section 230. Section 230 is the federal statute that immunizes online services providers for their users’ content. Most courts have construed Section 230 broadly, protecting ISPs against all sorts of liability. Intellectual property is (surprise) specifically exempted.

In this case, the Fair Housing Council sued Roommate.com for violations of the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits housing advertisements that state discriminatory preferences. The lower court held that Roommate.com, as an online provider, was immunized by Section 230 for postings on its service that allegedly violate the Fair Housing Act’s discriminatory housing ads prohibition.

The Ninth Circuit’s opinion, written by J. Kozinski, distinguished Roommate.com from a protected service based on three main features:
* Roommate.com shaped its users’ input with a form questionnaire that specified gender, sexual orientation, and with-children choices;
* Roommate.com’s search mechanism which has the same pulldown search options (gender, sexual orientation, and with-children);
* Roommate.com emails people with listings based on profile preferences (gender, sexual orientation, and with-children)

J. Reinhardt would have also held Roommate.com liable for the discriminatory content posted by users in the comments section, but the majority held that that information, which was not solicited by nor built into the search engine, was not Roommate.com’s responsibility.

J. Ikuta dissented from liability, and would have followed Carafano finding broad immunity even on the form submission.

… So what does it mean? My quick take is this:

First, readers will probably be familiar with these issues from the Craigslist case, and concerned about the 7th Circuit appeal. In my opinion, this case can be reconciled with the decision in the Craigslist case (ND Ill, a 7th Circuit court). This decision expressly held that the “no parameters” forms that are just open-ended do not create liability, and Craigslist.com’s housing forms are primarily open-ended: address, rent, cats/dogs. That decision is on appeal to the 7th Circuit. Should the 7th Circuit elect to address this aspect of the decision, that’s a fairly clear distinction to make. The 7th Circuit need not address this, though, because both the search & the email features that Kozinski brought up really hinge on the structured data input, which is the only real point of distinction between a “content provider” and a “content service”.

Second, despite Kozinski’s dancing, the case will be harder to reconcile with Carafano v. Metrosplash.com, a 2003 9th Circuit case that considered defamation & privacy liability for an online personals service that set up forms for publishing user input. (Carafano, 339 F.3d 1119.) In particular, it adds some weight and significance to the distinction between an “ICP” and an “ICS” (information content provider and interactive content service, respectively).

Third, the decision’s major point of distinction between Carafano and this case was that the ISP established policies. So establishing policies that reiterate the law will be key for ISPs in the wake of this decision. Kozinski stressed that the service in Carafano did not solicit the problematic information and in fact expressly forbade some aspects of it. So, under this decision, establishing policies that reiterate the law will go some way toward protecting an ISP. While this isn’t the worst outcome for a speech-related law, it seems (to me) to be a waste of time, and I’d point out that it burdens ISPs with educating their users about the law. This sort of burden is, to my mind, inconsistent with notions of ISPs as “utilities”, and also inconsistent with the broad, unfettered access to communications that the First Amendment contemplates.

Fourth, I imagine that this case will be used by all who seek to limit Section 230′s broad immunity for ISPs. Whether the case constitutes a high-water mark for limitations on that liability immunity, or merely a beachhead, remains to be seen.

update: Eric Goldman analyzes the decision at greater length, and you can get the flavor from the title “Ninth Circuit screws up 47 USC 230″.

PS – More on the FHA: I always think about, and rarely remember to point out, that one of the contested categories is sexual orientation, which isn’t included in the Fair Housing Act, although various state anti-discrimination codes do include it. Some people have also been confused about the roommate exception, which permits discrimination by roommates for shared-housing situations. If you lease a room in your apartment or house, for instance, you can discriminate on religion, etc. (Although shared-housing people can discriminate, advertising those discriminatory preferences is not protected.) So, generally, commercial landlords may not discriminate on race, sex, familial status, etc. (but they can discriminate on sexual orientation); shared-housing lessors may discriminate; advertising discriminatory preferences is prohibited, period. (But, again, advertising preferences against or for sexuality would be okay under the FHA.)