Evan Brown has a good summary of last week's Doe v. MySpace decision, wherein a federal district court in Texas threw out claims against MySpace due to the protections provided by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. As Evan describes:
Julie Doe, the anonymous minor plaintiff, lied about her age (saying she was 18 when in fact she was only 13) when she signed up for a MySpace account. Later she met a 19-year-old man on the site, and the two started talking by telephone. They met-up in person, and Doe was assaulted.
Julie and her mother sued MySpace, claiming that it failed to take adequate precautions to protect Julie from the attack. MySpace raised 47 U.S.C. §230 as a defense in its motion to dismiss. That section provides, in relevant part, that "[n]o 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."
As so many courts have done before, the court in this case adopted the rationale of the watershed Zeran v. America Online, Inc., 129 F.3d 327 (4th Cir. 1997). Zeran held that "[b]y its plain language, Section 230 creates a federal immunity to any cause of action that would make service providers liable for information originating with a third-party user of the service."
The court dismissed the case, finding MySpace immune under Section 230. While decisions of trial courts (even federal ones), may not generally be all that earth-shattering, this one is important for several reasons. First, it can only prove helpful (perhaps enormously so) to MySpace, which faces a slew of such claims. Second, the court's application of Section 230 is novel, in that it concluded the statute immunizes a party against "real world physical injury relating to, but not directly resulting from, the publication of material on the Internet," as John Ottaviani puts it. (Santa Clara law professor Eric Goldman is adding it to his Cyberspace Law syllabus for next year, and he won't be alone in giving the decision concerted scholarly attention.) Third, the decision may prompt legislators seeking to calm the nerves of concerned parents to question the wisdom of leaving Section 230 in the hands of so-called activist judges; Richard Koman thinks the decision puts the continued viability of Section 230, without which many Web businesses would fold under the weight of their liability for third party acts, in real jeopardy.