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Volokh Conspiracy

Man meets 13-year-old boy for sex via Grindr, is prosecuted, sues Grindr for negligence


Fortunately, the district court in Friday's Sapanaro v. Grindr (D.N.J. Mar. 13, 2015) says no; an excerpt (some paragraph breaks added):

After Plaintiff William F. Saponaro, Jr. was arrested for engaging in a sexual encounter with a [13-year-old] minor who used Defendant Grindr, LLC's online social networking service to arrange the encounter, he sued Defendant for negligence for allowing a minor child to access and utilize its social networking site…. Because Plaintiff's claim is barred by … [the federal statute] 47 U.S.C. § 230, the Court will … dismiss this action….

Plaintiff claims that Defendant was negligent by allowing the minor to hold himself out as an adult of consenting age on its online service. Specifically, Plaintiff asserts that he reasonably relied upon Defendant's age-restriction (a minimum of 18 years of age, 21 years in places where 21 years is the age of majority) found in the Grindr Terms of Service, and that Defendant's negligent failure to enforce its age- restriction directly resulted in Plaintiff's arrest and corresponding financial expenditures….

The [Section 230] "Good Samaritan" clause provides, in pertinent part, "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." 47 U.S.C. § 230(c)(1) (emphasis added). Section 230 also provides that "[n]o cause of action may be brought and no liability may be imposed under any State or local law that is inconsistent with this section." Id. § 230(e)(3).

As a practical matter, this statutory language "'precludes courts from entertaining claims that would place a computer service provider in a publisher's role' and bars 'lawsuits seeking to hold a service provider liable for its exercise of a publisher's traditional editorial functions such as deciding whether to publish, withdraw, postpone, or alter content.'" Accordingly, interactive computer service providers cannot be held liable for publishing harmful information that is generated by a third party. For example, if an online tabloid enables users to anonymously upload comments to its stories, the tabloid would not be liable for defamatory statements within those comments….

The Third Circuit has recognized the CDA's immunity provision to protect internet service providers from allegations of negligently failing to monitor their websites. In Green v. America Online, 318 F.3d 465, 471 (3d Cir. 2003), the plaintiff sued a chat room's host for defamatory statements generated by another user. The plaintiff sought to hold the host liable for failing to monitor its chat room. The Court of Appeals barred the claim, stating that monitoring is a function "quintessentially related to a publisher's role[,]" liability for which is specifically proscribed by [Section 230.]

In this case, Plaintiff's claims fail for the same reason. Plaintiff does not dispute that Defendant is an interactive computer service provider within the meaning of [Section 230] because its website gives subscribers access to a common server for purposes of social networking. See § 230(f)(2) (defining an "interactive computer service" as "any information service, system, or access software that provides or enables computer access by multiple users to a computer server….").

Plaintiff also seeks to hold Defendant responsible for failing to monitor its website: in the Complaint, Plaintiff repeatedly characterizes Defendant's wrongdoing as "failing to properly supervise its site." Plaintiff argues that as a consequence, a thirteen-year-old was allowed to use its services and to hold himself out as an adult, which created the circumstance that ultimately led to Plaintiff's arrest. Plaintiff therefore claims that Defendant should be liable for the harm caused by publishing the minor's assertion that he was over eighteen years of age.

Because the Third Circuit has expressly interpreted [section 230] to immunize interactive service providers from this type of liability, see Green, Plaintiff's claims must be dismissed as a matter of law.

Exactly right, and consistent with past 47 U.S.C. § 230 cases. I think the same result should apply under standard tort law, especially informed by First Amendment principles; tort law wouldn't and shouldn't require Web site operators to try to verify their users' identities and ages, something that would be highly impractical, and that, if required, would stop people from setting up such Web sites. But § 230 avoids these state-law questions, by preempting such claims altogether.

Thanks to Adam Bonin for the pointer.