SexSearch.com gets off on user's underage romp
Her profile said she was 18, your honor!
Age is just a number, right?
It is for hookup websites, according to a judge from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio.
SexSearch.com is a website that encourages its users to arrange sexual encounters using its services. Members create profiles that are populated by information provided in a registration form, including the members' ages, and then they can browse other profiles and chat with other users.
An anonymous plaintiff, John Doe, sued SexSearch after he met a fellow user, Jane Roe, whose profile stated that she was born on June 15, 1987, which would have made her 18 at the time. Her profile also contained an authentic picture of her, and a statement that her ideal man was one with some staying power. Sounds great, right?
Well, the two soon met up at her house and consummated their internet flirtation, and that's where John Doe's troubles began.
After his house was surrounded by police and he was arrested, the plaintiff learned that Jane Roe was actually a 14 year-old girl. He was charged with felony statutory rape, which could ultimately result in a fifteen-year prison term and lifetime classification as a sex offender. Ouch.
Doe decided to sue SexSearch, and alleged numerous legal transgressions by the site, including fraud, negligent misrepresentation and breach of warranty. The court boiled Doe's charges down to two major themes: 1) "[d]efendants failed to discover Jane Roe lied about her age to join the website," and 2) "the contract terms are unconscionable."
SexSearch argued that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (ironic, no?) shielded it from liability for Doe's claims. Section 230 blocks suits against interactive computer services based on their publication of information provided by a third party.
Doe countered that SexSearch reserved the right to modify profiles that didn't meet the guidelines in place for profiles on the site, thus SexSearch was an information content provider and unable to benefit from Section 230's immunity clause.
The judge in the case sided with the defendant, granting SexSearch's motion to dismiss the case in a ruling entered last week.
The judge rejected Doe's arguments that SexSearch was an information content provider because it reserved the right to revise profiles, pointing out that sites are only liable when they modify the specific information relating to a plaintiff's claims. Since the plaintiff here never argued that SexSearch modified Jane Roe's profile, the judge held that Section 230 applied to block the suit.
The decision completely ignored the recent Ninth Circuit Roommates.com opinion  that stripped a roommate-search social network of its Section 230 immunity based on its practice of guiding roommate-seekers to certain profiles based on information provided during the registration process. The court ruled that this channeling created an additional layer of information that qualified the site as an information content provider.
That situation seems largely analogous to the current case, yet the court didn't give it a single mention. There could be a number of reasons for this: a) the plaintiff didn't bring it up in his arguments to the court; b) the decision isn't binding precedent on this district court, since it lies within the 6th Circuit; c) the judge, like nearly everyone else, thinks the 9th Circuit's decision was crap; or d) all of the above.
Instead of following the 9th Circuit down the rabbit hole, the judge's ruling more closely tracked the Doe v. Myspace decision  out of Texas that exonerated the popular social network against claims of negligence following the sexual assault of a minor by a man she met through MySpace.
Not only did the courts both find that Section 230 applied, but they also found that it protected the sites against charges other than the usual claims of defamation - breach of contract and fraud for SexSearch, and negligence for MySpace.
The court here went even further for SexSearch, and also ruled that Doe's claims failed on the merits. That is, even without the Section 230 immunity, Doe hadn't stated a case that had any legal possibility of success.
While Doe may be out of luck, the ruling is good news for social sex networks and dating sites. But it may also turn out to be bad for the users of those services.
With no impetus for the sites to weed out age cheats, the possibility that more John Does out there could find themselves surrounded by cops one morning only increases.
Of course, as the judge here pointed out, Doe did have ample opportunity to verify Roe's age before having sex with her.
And considering that she was barely out of middle school and he was meeting her at her family home, that probably would have been wise.®