EFF Urges Appeals Court to Protect Innovation

San Francisco - The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has filed a brief urging the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider a recent ruling that endangers features like search customization and user feedback on interactive web services.

The ruling came in a housing discrimination lawsuit against Roommate.com, which runs Internet forum where users can search for potential roommates. A three-judge panel held that Roommate.com could be held liable for the activity of its users because it "suggested, encouraged, or solicited" and then sorted and categorized content that may have violated fair housing law. But this reasoning threatens both current and future Internet innovators with potentially insurmountable liability problems -- impacting everything from search engine functionality to the ability to tag content on media sharing sites such as YouTube and Flickr -- and is directly contrary to federal law. As EFF argued Friday in its amicus brief in support of appeal, Roommate.com is immune to liability for its users' activities under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which specifically protects hosts of interactive computer services.

"Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act was passed specifically to help the Internet continue to grow without being tied down by regulation," said EFF Staff Attorney Matt Zimmerman. "If service providers have to worry about potentially crushing liability, it will strongly discourage the development of new tools for online users. In fact, many of the tools we use already would be impacted by this ruling, potentially crippling innovations in search and customization."

Search engines, for example, are designed to categorize and sort content, features potentially at risk under the Ninth Circuit's ruling. Sites that solicit user feedback and opinions and allow searching by user ranking could also run afoul of the new ruling.

"Courts across the country have recognized the critical role that Section 230 plays in Internet innovation," said Zimmerman. "The 9th Circuit should take this appeal and clarify that its strong protections remain in full force."

For the full amicus brief:

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Matt Zimmerman
Staff Attorney
Electronic Frontier Foundation