Communications Decency Act Shields Craigslist from Liability
I’ve explained here several times that the Communications Decency Act is a necessary evil because you could never have open forums for discussion on the Internet if the operators of the websites were required to read and approve every message posted. Perhaps the Amazons of the world would have the resources to hire a huge staff to monitor all postings, but any popular discussion site that started to attract thousands of visitors would likely be required to stop offering a public forum if it became responsible for the things posted by visitors.
Some attorneys still don’t understand this reality. Take the case of Richard M. Berman. Poor Richard was shot by someone using a handgun purchased from a for sale ad posted on Craigslist. He hired attorney Paul B. Dalnocky, who sued Craigslist for more than $10 million, claiming it was responsible for the handgun ending up in the bad guy’s hands. The civil complaint alleged Craigslist “is either unable or unwilling to allocate the necessary resources to monitor, police, maintain and properly supervise the goods and services” sold on its site. When interviewed for an article on Law.com, attorney Dalnocky said, “We weren’t seeing Craigslist as a publisher — we were seeing it as a regular business that should have monitored its business better. I mean, how can you run a business with millions of ads and have only 25 employees monitoring it?”
No, Mr. Dalnocky, the question is, how would a service like Craigslist be possible if attorneys could sue for things posted in those millions of ads? The answer is it wouldn’t be possible. You allege “millions” of ads are posted on Craigslist. Let’s assume a person could review 1000 ads during a work day. That’s probably not realistic, because that means the person would need to review more than two ads per minute (assuming an eight-hour work day with two 15 minute breaks). Some ads go on for pages so I don’t think one could really review more than two ads per minute, but let’s go with 1000 just to keep the numbers simple. Thus, Craigslist would need to hire 1000 employees for every one million ads posted. It’s going to be very difficult for old Craig to maintain his business model that permits me to post free ads for my 8-track tapes if he is required to hire thousands of employees.
And, Mr. Dalnocky, what would those thousands of employees be looking for, exactly? Guns can be legally sold, and I did not see anything in the court’s decision about any alleged illegality of the gun sale in question. Rather, your complaint alleged that Craigslist was liable because it breached its “duty of care to ensure that inherently hazardous objects, such as handguns, did not come into the hands of . . . individuals, such as Mr. Ortiz.” (Ortiz was alleged to have shot Richard Berman.) What, in that ad, would have put the reviewer on notice that this gun sale was going to end badly?
The attorney representing Craigslist is no doubt a subscriber to the Internet Defamation Blog, and therefore knew that the Communications Decency Act (CDA) is not limited only to claims for defamation. Craigslist moved for dismissal under §230, which states that no “provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as a publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider,” and that no “cause of action may be brought and liability imposed under any State law that is inconsistent with this section.”
The court properly dismissed the case under the CDA because, let’s say it all together, a website operator cannot be held liable for comments (or ads) posted by third parties, and is not liable for failing to somehow monitor those comments (or ads). One of the earliest cases involving the CDA was an action against Ebay. Someone sued, claiming that Ebay should be held liable for the counterfeit items that were being posted and sold, trying to impose on it an obligation to review and investigate every ad. Ebay prevailed in that action, and Craigslist properly prevailed in this one.
The full court decision can be found here.