9th Circuit Applies Section 230 Immunity to Online Dating Service

August 13, 2003. The U.S. Court of Appeals (9thCir) issued its opinion [12 pages in PDF] in Carafano v. Metrosplash.com, a case regarding application of Section 230 interactive computer service immunity to an online dating service. The District Court had held that the online dating service, which wrote the questionnaire to be used by persons who post their profiles, did not have  230 immunity for a false posting, because it contributed to the content. The Appeals Court held that the service does have  230 immunity.

Background. Matchmaker.com is a commercial internet dating service. Members of Matchmaker post anonymous profiles of themselves, and may view profiles of other members in their area, contacting them by e-mail sent through the Matchmaker server.

Christianne Carafano is a movie and television actress who is also known as Chase Masterson. She is not a member of Matchmaker.

A person or persons unknown to the Court appropriated Carafano's identity, by posting false content to the Matchmaker service that purported to have been posted by Carafano. It was vulgar, and it solicited services from men. The anonymous person also provided her home address and phone number. Carafano moved out of her home for several months to protect her safety.

District Court. Carafano filed a complaint in California state court against Matchmaker and its corporate successors, alleging invasion of privacy, misappropriation of the right of publicity, defamation, and negligence. Matchmaker removed the case to the U.S. District Court (CDCal). Matchmaker asserted  230 immunity. The District Court granted Matchmaker's motion for summary judgment. But, the District Court rejected the Section 230 argument, on the basis Matchmaker had written the questionnaire that posters use to post their profiles.

It granted summary judgment based on its application of the law of invasion of privacy. The District Court held that Carafano could not maintain an invasion of privacy claim because her home address was newsworthy, and because Matchmaker had not disclosed her address with reckless disregard for her privacy. It dismissed the three other claims because Carafano could not show that Matchmaker acted with actual malice. See, 207 F. Supp 2d. 1055.

Statute. Section 230 provides in part that "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." This subsection is codified at 47 U.S.C. 230(c)(1).

 230 also defines "interactive computer service" as "any information service, system, or access software provider that provides or enables computer access by multiple users to a computer server, including specifically a service or system that provides access to the Internet and such systems operated or services offered by libraries or educational institutions."

Appeals Court. Carafano appealed, and was supported on appeal by privacy advocacy groups and organizations representing entertainers (The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, Gavin De Becker, Privacyactivism, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, and the Screen Actors Guild), as amici curiae

Interactive computer service providers have business models their depend on  230. Moreover, they have achieved considerable success in asserting  230 in prior cases. Hence, the District Court's published opinion declining to apply  230 in this case posed a significant threat. AOL, eBay, the Internet Commerce Coalition, and the United States Internet Service Provider Association intervened to challenge the District Court's construction of  230.

The Appeals Court affirmed, but on other grounds -- that Matchmaker has  230 immunity.

The Appeals Court wrote that "Congress granted most Internet services immunity from liability for publishing false or defamatory material so long as the information was provided by another party. As a result, Internet publishers are treated differently from corresponding publishers in print, television and radio." It added that "Congress enacted this provision as part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 for two basic policy reasons: to promote the free exchange of information and ideas over the Internet and to encourage voluntary monitoring for offensive or obscene material."

The Appeals Court also reviewed the precedents, and concluded that "reviewing courts have treated 230(c) immunity as quite robust, adopting a relatively expansive definition of "interactive computer service" and a relatively restrictive definition of "information content provider." Under the statutory scheme, an "interactive computer service" qualifies for immunity so long as it does not also function as an "information content provider" for the portion of the statement or publication at issue."

The Court then applied the law to the facts of this case. It held that "The fact that some of the content was formulated in response to Matchmaker's questionnaire does not alter this conclusion. Doubtless, the questionnaire facilitated the expression of information by individual users. However, the selection of the content was left exclusively to the user. The actual profile "information" consisted of the particular options chosen and the additional essay answers provided. Matchmaker was not responsible, even in part, for associating certain multiple choice responses with a set of physical characteristics, a group of essay answers, and a photograph." (Footnotes omitted.)

And thus, the Appeals Court concluded that, "despite the serious and utterly deplorable consequences that occurred in this case, we conclude that Congress intended that service providers such as Matchmaker be afforded immunity from suit. Thus, we affirm the judgment of the district court, albeit on other grounds."

Other Section 230 Cases. Interactive computer services providers have prevailed under  230 in a wide variety of cases.

The landmark victory was Zeran v. America Online, Inc., 958 F. Supp. 1124 (E.D.Va. 1997); affirmed by U.S. Court of Appeals, 4th Circuit, 129 F.2d 327 (1997); certiorari denied. The Courts applied 230(c)(1) in holding AOL not liable for defamatory statement contained in posting in various AOL bulletin boards by an AOL subscriber. See, Court of Appeals opinion, and TLJ summary of Zeran v. AOL.

In Doe v. America Online, Inc., Trial Court Case No. CL 97-631 AE; Decision: 1997 WL 374223 (Fla. Cir. Ct. June 26, 1997), the Court applied 230(c)(1) in holding that AOL was not liable for statements made by an AOL subscriber in an AOL chatroom. Plaintiff appealed to Florida's Fourth District Court of Appeals. (Case No. 97-2587.)  The appeals court affirmed the trial court decision. See, trial court opinion, and appeals court opinion.

In Blumenthal v. Drudge and AOL, AOL has raised  230(c)(1) as a defense to Sidney Blumenthal's claim that AOL is liable for alleged defamation of content provider Matt Drudge. The District Court granted AOL's Motion for Summary Judgment based on  230. See, District Court opinion and TLJ summary of Blumenthal v. Drudge.

More recent cases include Ben Ezra, Weinstein, & Co. v. America Online Inc., 206 F.3d 980 (10th Cir. 2000), and Green v. America Online, 318 F.3d 465 (3d Cir. 2003).

Most recently, on June 24, 2003, the U.S. Court of Appeals (9thCir) issued its opinion [41 pages in PDF] in Batzel v. Smith, a case involving the application of California's Anti-SLAPP statute to a suit alleging defamation on an internet listserv. The District Court denied a defendant's motion to dismiss under the Anti-SLAPP statute. The Appeals Court, relying upon  230, vacated and remanded. See, 333 F.3d 1018. See also, TLJ story titled "9th Circuit Construes Section 230 Immunity in Suit Against Listserv Operator", also published in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 687, June 25, 2003.

The present case is Christianne Carafano v. Metrosplash.com, Inc., Lycos, Inc., and Matchmaker.com, Inc., No. 02-55658, an appeal from the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, Judge Dickran Tevrizian presiding, D.C. No.CV-01-00018-DT.