UPDATE: Both the Massachusetts District Court and the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the plaintiffs' lawsuit against Backpage should be dismissed. Both courts agreed with EFF that Section 230 provides broad protection for websites against liability for content posted by their users. Specifically, both courts adopted EFF's argument that while Section 230 does not apply to federal criminal prosecutions, the statute does apply to nullify civil actions that are authorized by related federal criminal laws.
EFF, the Center for Democracy & Technology, and Professor Eric Goldman from Santa Clara University School of Law filed an amicus brief in a Massachusetts federal trial court highlighting the importance of interpreting Section 230 (47 U.S.C. § 230) broadly to shield websites and other Internet intermediaries from liability for illegal content posted by their users.
The plaintiffs in the case of Doe No. 1 v. Backpage.com, LLC are young women who were allegedly sold for sex as minors via ads placed on Backpage.com, a classifieds website similar to Craigslist.org. These alleged victims of underage sex trafficking have brought various claims against the website owners and operators even though the defendants did not have a hand in creating or posting the ads. The ads were posted by traffickers or by the plaintiffs themselves at the direction of their traffickers.
Underage sex trafficking is undoubtedly horrific conduct. But liability for that conduct cannot be placed on Internet intermediaries without changing the fundamental structure and nature of the Internet. We believe strongly in upholding Section 230, which provides that an Internet intermediary cannot be held legally responsible for “any information provided by another information content provider,” that is, a user of the website.
Congress passed the law in 1996 to promote free speech and innovation online through “the continued development of the Internet and other interactive computer services and other interactive media.”
In our brief, we urged the district court to grant Backpage.com’s motion to dismiss the case. We argued that the very narrow exceptions to Section 230’s broad immunity must remain very narrow. Specifically, the federal criminal law exception should not be interpreted to include civil actions authorized by criminal statutes, and the intellectual property exception should not be interpreted to include state law right of publicity claims.
EFF has consistently advocated for a broad application of Section 230 in the United States. We have also been working with partner organizations to develop the Manila Principles on Intermediary Liability, which will be presented at RightsCon 2015 later this month and are inspired, in part, by Section 230.