April/May 2007

CDA Immunizes MySpace From Negligence Claims

Holland & Knight Newsletter
Gordon P. Katz

MySpace is the most visited Web site in the United States. A “social networking” site, MySpace permits its members to create online profiles – individual Web pages – on which members post photographs, videos and other information about themselves. Members use the MySpace.com platform to communicate with other members via e-mail, instant messaging or blogs. (Other social network sites, like Facebook and Friendster, operate much the same way.)

Because such Web sites are freely open to the public, they have the potential to attract predators. Such was the case in Jane Doe v. MySpace, Inc., decided on February 13, 2007, by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas.

The case grew out of the creation of a MySpace profile by Jane Doe’s then 13-year-old daughter, Julie Doe, in violation of MySpace’s rule requiring users to be at least 14. Pete Solis, a 19-year-old, soon thereafter contacted Julie through MySpace. Julie gave Pete her phone number. The two of them subsequently met in person for a date in Austin, Texas; during that encounter, Pete allegedly sexually assaulted Julie.

Jane, Julie’s mother, brought suit against MySpace in short order, alleging principally that MySpace failed to take steps to keep young children off of its site. In no less short order, the District Court, in early February 2007, dismissed the complaint on the ground that the Communications Decency Act of 1996, 47 U.S.C. §230 (CDA) barred such claims.

The CDA provides 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.” In enacting Section 230, Congress sought to ensure that the Internet would thrive unfettered by crippling suits against Web site operators or other interactive computer services.

Courts have solidly affirmed that the CDA is a shield against defamation suits based on communications posted by third parties, although a few have stretched to find exceptions to CDA immunity where the Internet provider “knew or should have known” of the alleged third-party wrongdoing.

Jane Doe sought to avoid the CDA’s barrier to suit by arguing that CDA immunity was limited to cases involving defamation or related actions and that her negligence claims against MySpace had nothing to do with “the content” of information provided.

The court rejected Jane Doe’s position. It relied upon similar cases against Yahoo, AOL and others, where liability had been sought for the provider or service’s negligent permitting of offensive or obscene posting of material (such as child pornography). In so doing, the court characterized the underlying basis of Jane Doe’s claim as having the required publication element. It viewed the plaintiff as alleging that, through MySpace postings, Solis and Julie Doe exchanged personal information, which eventually led to a meeting and the alleged sexual assault. For that reason, it ruled that the CDA imposed an absolute bar on Jane Doe’s suit.

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