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SexSearch not responsible for underage hookup (again)

User profile says she's 18? Check her ID

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A US appeals court has once again ruled that websites aren't responsible for the stupidity of its users. And as a legal bonus, it has also verified that "your honor, her profile said she was 18" won't get a man off the hook.

As spotted by Eric Goldman, the case of John Doe v. SexSearch.com has rolled back into court, with pseudonymous plaintiff Doe faring no better than the first time he sued the matchmaking site.

This John Doe was a paying "gold member" of the website SexSearch which he used to, well, search for sex.

The website encourages users to arrange sexual encounters with other SexSearch members, provided first they fill out a registration form which includes their date of birth.

Doe met and eventually had consensual sex with female SexSearch member "Jane Roe," who claimed in her profile that she was born on June 15, 1987 – making her 18 at the time. (You can probably see where this is going). Her profile also contained Roe's authentic picture and a statement that her ideal match was a male "who could last for a long time."

But as it turned out, she was only 14. And the cops that swarmed around Doe's house a few months later weren't collecting for the annual policeman charity ball. Doe was eventually brought up on statutory rape charges, which could result in a 15-year prison term and lifetime classification as a sex offender.

So Doe decided to sue SexSearch for a variety of contractual transgressions, ultimately boiling down to him blaming the website for failing to verify the ages of its members.

SexSearch defended itself on grounds of Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act. The legislation states "[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." US courts have taken it to mean that websites can't be held responsible for unmoderated comments and profiles posted by its users – which is a big reason why things like Facebook and YouTube's comments section are still around, though there are few more wretched hives of scum and villainy.

Doe countered that he had agreed to SexSearch's Terms and Conditions, which stated "all persons within this site are 18+" and claimed the website's contractual agreement included a promise to review, verify, and approve all profiles and to remove materials depicting minors. Because SexSearch could modify the content of profiles, he claimed the site didn't meet the CDA immunity guidelines.

US District Court for the Northern District of Ohio tossed out Doe's lawsuit in August 2007, ruling that each of his 14 claims against the website don't hold up to legal scrutiny and that SexSearch is protected by Section 230. Notably, the judge stated that although the website can modify the content of profiles in general, Doe made no claims that the website had specifically moderated or modified Roe's profile.

The judge also noted that Doe had plenty of time to confirm the girl's age himself when they met in person.

On appeal, the court once again dismissed Doe's case against SexSearch. The appeals judge, however, tossed the case solely on the basis of Doe's claims being legally invalid rather than Section 230 safe harbor.

From the ruling (PDF):

Because we agree with the district court that Doe's complaint failed to state a claim, we do not reach the question of whether the Communications Decency Act provides SexSearch with immunity from suit. We do not adopt the district court's discussion of the Act, which could read § 230 more broadly than any previous Court of Appeals decision has read it, potentially abrogating all state- or common-law causes of action brought against interactive Internet services.

So where a website's responsibility for user-provided content ends is still somewhat in the air. And while covering your ass from US users may prevent 90 per cent of potential lawsuits, even a conservatively accepted scope of Section 230 isn't exactly a universally accepted rule. That's why El Reg manually slogs through each and every comment.

No wait, it's because we love you. ®

Bootnote

For those reading at home (or maybe at work with a desk facing a wall) – you may want to check out the hilariously high tech-themed SexSearch front page. It's like navigating a slutty star ship.

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