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Website Liability: If You Build It, You May Pay

May 15th, 2007 | by Daniel DiRito |

A Federal Appeals Court has issued a ruling that holds a website (roommate.com) liable for the postings of some of its users. The court ruled that if a website constructs a format that is designed to elicit responses that can be viewed to violate established law, then the owner of the website can be held responsible.

A Web site that matches roommates may be liable for what its users say about their preferences, a fractured three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled yesterday.

The suit was brought by two California fair housing groups that objected to postings on the matching service, Roommate.com. The groups said the site violated the Fair Housing Act by allowing and encouraging its users to post notices expressing preferences for roommates based on sex, race, religion and sexual orientation.

The ruling knocked down the main defense of the site. In 1996, Congress granted immunity to Internet service providers for transmitting unlawful materials supplied by others. Most courts have interpreted the scope of that immunity broadly.

Though their rationales varied, all three judges in the decision yesterday agreed that the site could be held liable for soliciting information from users through a series of menus about themselves and their preferred roommates and for posting and distributing profiles created from the menus. The choices on the menus included gender, sexual orientation and whether children were involved.

Because Roomate.com created the menus, the court ruled, it cannot claim immunity under the 1996 law, the Communications Decency Act.

The ruling is the first of its type and will likely set in motion additional claims against website owners. The good news is that site owners can easily avoid liability by steering clear of preparing forms or documents that are designed to gather unlawful information. Nonetheless, the ruling will no doubt lead to a rash of new challenges to the no holds barred frontier we call the internet.

Cross-posted at Thought Theater.

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