The United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio has ruled that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) protects SexSearch, an online adult dating website that encourages its users to meet and engage in casual sexual relationships, against liability derived from its publication of a user profile which identified a certain minor female user as an adult.
The Plaintiff in Doe v. SexSearch.com, ____ F.Supp.2d ____, 2007 WL 2388913 (2007), was a "Gold member" of SexSearch who located the user profile of "Jane Roe" in October 2005. Roe’s profile indicated that her birthday was June 15, 1987 and that she was 18 years old. Doe began chatting online with Roe through SexSearch. Eventually, Doe and Roe decided to meet for a sexual encounter.
As it turns out, Roe was not actually 18 years old, but 14. As a result of their encounter, Doe was arrested and charged with three felony counts of engaging in unlawful sexual conduct with a minor. On those charges, Doe faces a prison sentence of 15 years and the requirement that he forever register as a sex offender.
Roe sued SexSearch and its owners, alleging that upon becoming a member of SexSearch he reviewed SexSearch's warranties and agreed to SexSearch's Terms and Conditions and profile guidelines. Roe contended that the Defendants warranted that all users of the site were 18 years of age or older and was contractually bound to review, verify, and approve all user profiles published on the website. Among other claims, Roe alleged causes of action for breach of contract, fraud, negligent infliction of emotional distress, negligent misrepresentation, deceptive trade practices, and failure to warn.
Considering SexSearch’s motion to dismiss, the Court concluded that "in determining whether to apply the CDA, the Court should not ask what particular form the plaintiff's claim takes . . . but whether the claim is directed toward the defendant in its publishing, editorial, and/or screening capacities, and seeking to hold it ‘liable for its publication of third-party content or harms flowing from the dissemination of that content.’" If so, the claim is barred, whether it is based in contract or tort.
[a]t the end of the day . . . Plaintiff is seeking to hold SexSearch liable for its publication of third-party content and harms flowing from the dissemination of that content. The underlying basis for Plaintiff's claim is that if SexSearch had never published Jane Roe's profile, Plaintiff and Jane Roe never would have met, and the sexual encounter never would have taken place. Plaintiff thus attempts to hold SexSearch liable for "decisions relating to the monitoring, screening, and deletion of content from its network-actions quintessentially related to a publisher's role." . . . Section 230 specifically proscribes liability in such circumstances.