Police blotter: Nude 'profile' yields Yahoo suit

Woman says ex-boyfriend posted nude photos and her phone number in a Yahoo Personals profile. She sued for $3 million.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
2 min read

What: Cecilia Barnes sued Yahoo after ex-boyfriend allegedly posted a personal profile with nude photos of Barnes and her work contact information.

When: U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken in Oregon ruled on Nov. 8.

Outcome: Case dismissed.

What happened: To hear Barnes tell the story, her former boyfriend tried to harass her by creating a series of online profiles with nude photographs of her and her correct contact information at work.

The boyfriend, identified in local news reports as Randolph Russell, allegedly also entered chat rooms posing as Barnes and solicited other men to look at "her" profile. Barnes said those actions led to unwelcome suitors showing up at her workplace.

Barnes says she complained to Yahoo starting in January 2005--and obtained a verbal commitment from a Yahoo employee to help out--but the profiles were not deleted until the lawsuit was filed. Her lawsuit asked for $3 million in damages.

Yahoo argued that a federal law, part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, means that it's not liable for what other people post on its Web site.

Also called Sec. 230, that law says, "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."

Aiken agreed. The judge ruled that a string of precedents, including the 1997 Zeran v. America Online decision, immunized Yahoo from such lawsuits.

Barnes still has other options. Even though she lost out on a $3 million jackpot, she could still sue her ex-boyfriend for damages in state court.

Excerpt from court opinion: "Plaintiff's allegations similarly fall under the broad immunity provided Internet servers by Sec. 230. Plaintiff alleges she was harmed by third-party content and that the service provider (Yahoo) allegedly breached a common law or statutory duty to block, screen, remove, or otherwise edit that content. Any such claim by plaintiff necessarily treats the service provider as 'publisher' of the content and is therefore barred by Sec. 230.

"Plaintiff's argument that she seeks to hold defendant liable only for its alleged 'failure to fulfill its promise to remove the unauthorized profiles' does not remove this case from the immunity provided by Sec. 230. Plaintiff's claim remains an effort to hold the service provider liable for failing to perform the duties of a publisher, such as screening or removing third-party content."