Synopsis of Rule of Law.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 claimed to be false, misleading or defamatory.
Facts. Matchmaker.com (like Match.com, eHarmony.com, etc.) was a commercial Internet dating service where individuals, for a fee, could post anonymous profiles and view profiles of other members in the area, with the ability to contact such members via email sent through the website server. There was also a questionnaire section with multiple choice and essay answers where members could provide additional detail; some answers were innocuous while others were sexually suggestive. Matchmaker reviewed photos for impropriety before posting but did not review the profiles themselves, relying instead on participants to adhere to service guidelines. Such guidelines prohibited members from posting last names, addresses, phone numbers or email addresses within a profile.
On October 23, 1999, an unknown person posted a “trial” profile of Plaintiff Carafano without her permission or knowledge in the Los Angeles section of the site (Plaintiff is also known by her stage name as Chase Masterson). Such profile included sexually related commentary and contained photos of the actress and listed her movies. It also provided a fake email address for contact, and upon sending an email to this address, one would get an automatic response stating “You think you are the right one? Proof it!!”, and provided Plaintiff’s home address and telephone number. As a result of the profile, Plaintiff received numerous threats and sexually explicit messages via email and voicemail. After contacting the website and getting the profile removed, Plaintiff filed suit against Defendant in California, alleging invasion of privacy, misappropriation of the right of publicity, defamation, and negligence. After removal, the district court granted Defendant’s motion for summary judgment, although it rejected Defendant’s immunity argument under 47 U.S.C. §230(c)(1).
Issue. Whether Plaintiff’s claims are barred by 47 U.S.C. §230(c)(1) [which states that “no provider”of an interactive computer service shall be treated as a publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider”]?
Held. Yes, because under the circumstances, Defendant could not be considered an information content provider of the offending information.
Discussion. Under the Communications Decency Act of 1996, Congress granted most Internet services immunity from liability for publishing false or defamatory material so long as the information was provided by another party, which resulted in internet publishers being treated differently from print, television and radio publishers.
There were two purposes for this immunity: a) to promote the free exchange of information and ideas over the Internet; and b) to encourage voluntary monitoring for offensive or obscene material. In order to uphold these purposes, courts have defined “interactive computer service” very broadly and “information content provider” very narrowly. Accordingly, 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.
Citing Betzel (immunity for an electronic newsletter who selected and published an allegedly defamatory email over the Internet), the court observed that § 230(c) provides broad immunity for publishing content provided primarily by third parties. Turning to the facts at hand, the court noted that although certain portions of the content on the individual members’ profiles was formulated based on the members’ responses to the questionnaire, Defendant’s immunity would not be impaired, as the selection of the content was entirely within the control of the member. Therefore, Defendant cannot be considered an “information content provider” under the statute because no profile has any content until a user actively creates it.
Essentially, Defendant’s role was analogous to the customer rating system discussed in Gentry, where Defendant eBay did not transform into an “information content provider” solely because it compiled false and/or misleading content created by the individual defendants and other coconspirators. Similarly, the fact that Defendant classifies user characteristics into various discrete categories and collects responses to specific essay-type questions does not transform Defendant into a “developer” of the underlying information.
The critical issue in these cases is whether the defendant acted as an information content provider with respect to the information that plaintiff claims is false or misleading. Analyzing the case at hand, the court recognized the information about Plaintiff’s home address, movie credits, and the email address that revealed her phone number were transmitted unaltered to profile viewers, and the profile directly reproduced the most sexually suggestive comments in the essay section (none of which bore more than a tenuous relationship to the actual questions asked). Therefore, it cannot be said that Defendant played a significant role in creating, developing or transforming the relevant information.