Dart vs. Craigslist: Relation to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act

BACKGROUND OF THE CASE

Plaintiff: Thomas Dart, the Sheriff of Cook County, Illinois. He was named to Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential” list in 2009 for his innovative approach to law enforcement. Thomas Dart is 50 years old and has served as the Sheriff since 2006. Cook County has the second largest department in the United States. From January 2007 through November 2008, Sheriff Dart’s department expended 3,120 man hours and approximately $105,081 investigating postings which appeared to be prostitution offers on the “erotic services” section of the Craigslist website. The police arrested 156 people in association with their activity on the erotic services section of Craigslist during this period.

Thomas Dart the Sheriff of Cook County, Illinois tries to sue Craigslist for inducing prostitution.

Defendant: Craigslist Inc. Craigslist is a classified advertisement website with sections devoted to jobs, housing, personals, for sale, items wanted, services, community, gigs, resumes, and discussion forms. Craigslist became a web based service in 1996 and it currently covers 50 countries. Craigslist requires those third party users who post ads to agree to its “Terms of Use,” which prohibits posting unlawful content. Before accessing the erotic services section, users also receive a “warning and disclaimer,” which states that users agree to flag content that violates the Terms of Use including “offers for or the solicitation of prostitution.”

Craigslist.com, an classified service provider is one of the many Internet websites that are protected under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Location and Date: Illinois, October 20, 2009

LAWSUIT FILED

Thomas Dart filed a civil complaint, seeking an injunction, compensatory and punitive damages and attorneys’ fees. According to Dart’s complaint, Craigslist creates a “public nuisance” because its “conduct in creating erotic services, developing twenty-one categories, and providing a word search function causes a significant interference with the public’s health, safety, peace, and welfare.” His complaint also stated that that Craigslist was “the single largest source of prostitution in the nation.” Thomas Dart claim was that the website was a “public nuisance” because of Craigslist users posting ads in the “erotic services” category that facilitate prostitution. Sheriff Dart stated that he had sent letters to Craigslist requesting that it either take down the erotic services section or provide greater policing of it, but Craigslist did not respond. He further stated, “I could make arrests off Craigslist 24 hours a day, but to what end? I’m trying to go up the ladder.” Sheriff Dart alleged that Craigslist actually committed unlawful acts by knowingly arranging prostitution and directing users to places of prostitution.

CRAIGSLIST’S RESPONSE

Craigslist moved for judgment on the pleadings, contending that it was immune from liability pursuant to Section 230(c) of the Communications Decency Act.

COURT’S RULING

The court ruled that Craigslist is not liable for the content posted by its viewers citing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, concluding that Craigslist, as an Internet classified ads service provider, is immune to civil liability for third party content. The court reasoned that since it was the users who choose to post such content, even against Craigslist’s express Terms of Use, intermediaries are not culpable for ‘aiding and abetting’ their customers who misuse their services to commit unlawful acts. The court noted that Craigslist had not authored the discriminatory ads and “could not be treated as the ‘speaker’ of the posters’ words.” It was also ruled that Craigslist in no way induced anyone to create, post or search for illegal content merely by supplying the erotic category and an associated search mechanism. The court finally concluded that “Section 230 would serve little if any purpose if companies like Craigslist were found liable under state law for ‘causing’ or ‘inducing’ users to post unlawful content in this fashion.”

SECTION 230

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act states 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 act provides immunity from liability for providers and users of an “interactive computer service” who publish information provided by others.

CONCLUSION

Since, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act was created in 1996, companies like Craigslist and AOL that host third party content are now protected and can no longer be held liable for what other people post on their websites. The website is not liable for what third parties post on them and they do not automatically assume ownership and responsibility. This includes Social Media websites such as Twitter and Facebook whom are not liable for what their users post. These websites are simply serving their purpose and are immune from being punished for this sort of behavior.

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