New ruling protects ISPs, Web operators

A court overturns an earlier decision that threatened to hold Net companies responsible for their customers' actions.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
2 min read
Internet service providers and Web site operators are breathing a collective sigh of relief following a court decision that preserves a key aspect of their immunity under the Communications Decency Act.

The ruling, handed down Aug. 13 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, overturns a decision by the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. That ruling alarmed ISPs and Web site operators, because it delineated the first significant exceptions to the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which absolves those businesses from responsibility for their customers' actions.

Section 230 of the CDA carved out significant immunity for "interactive computer services" for the behavior of their customers. But the district court ruled that dating site Matchmaker and its operator, Metrosplash--acquired by Lycos in June 2000--could be held liable for information a user posted because of the interactive nature of the questionnaire that generated the posting.

The court of appeals disagreed.

"So long as a third party willingly provides the essential published content, the interactive computer service receives full immunity regardless of the specific editing or selection process," the decision read.

At issue was a fabricated Matchmaker profile of Los Angeles actress Christianne Carafano, a.k.a. Chase Masterson, whose roles include that of Leeta on the TV show "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine." The posting mixed accurate information, including Carafano's name and address, with alleged falsehoods.

Legal experts hailed the decision, calling it the extension of a crucial shield for Web sites and ISPs.

"With this statement, the 9th Circuit firmly shuts down one of the loopholes in the statute," said Eric Goldman, an assistant professor at Marquette University Law School. "The district court opinion suggested that Web sites integrally involved in content creation could be treated as the content provider and thus lose the statutory immunity. Here, the 9th Circuit raises the bar on that approach substantially. It also provides valuable and helpful breathing space for lots of Web sites that help users structure the publication of content."

Attorneys for Carafano could not be reached for comment.