Reddit not guilty of sex trafficking, court rules

Reddit cannot be sued for sex trafficking if it did not knowingly enable sex trafficking. This is the gist of a recent decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

The case-Doe vs. Reddit— was contributed by six Jane Does, who say Reddit users circulated sexually explicit images of them that were taken when they were underage. Reddit deleted the photos when notified, but the Dos claim that Reddit was not quick enough to do so and did not stop users from re-uploading the deleted images. They say it made Reddit complicit in a sex trafficking business.

In an Oct. 24 ruling, the Ninth Circuit judges disagreed. They note that because Reddit is an “interactive computing service” provider, it is generally immune from legal liability for user-posted content.

This immunity is explicitly set out in section 230 – sometimes referred to as “the internet’s first amendment.” Section 230 states that neither Internet users nor service providers should be treated as the “publisher or speaker” of speech by “another informational content provider”. For example, if you slander someone ‘un on YouTube, you, not YouTube, can be sued.

The 2018 Empowering States and Victims to Combat Online Sex Trafficking Act, better known as FOSTA, created an exception to Section 230 for complaints about sex trafficking. But no one was quite sure of the scope of this exception.

Article 230, FOSTA and uncertainty regarding immunity

FOSTA’s premise has always been misleading, with politicians and advocates insisting that child sex trafficking websites need to be stopped urgently. But Section 230 does not apply to people or platforms that violate federal criminal laws. If someone ran a site designed to facilitate forced or underage prostitution, they could be held criminally liable, notwithstanding Section 230. A person directly involved in criminal activity does not obtain immunity simply because they negotiated it through ‘a website. What article 230 Is do is give websites some liability protection for accessory facilitation of crimes. A state attorney general cannot prosecute a site like Craigslist if it unwittingly facilitates an illegal gun sale. You can’t take legal action against Facebook if someone threatens you. Etc.

For sex trafficking cases, this meant that victims could bring civil suits against those directly involved in their exploitation (a cause of action set out in Section 1595 of the federal criminal code). But they wouldn’t succeed in suing something like a social media site, dating app, or classifieds platform just because the perpetrator used those services to facilitate exploitation. If they tried to bring such cases – and many did – the courts would quickly say that such cases were prohibited by Section 230.

FOST changed the rules in section 230 somewhat by amending the federal law “to clarify that Section 230…does not prohibit the enforcement against providers and users of interactive computer services of federal and state criminal and civil law relating to sexual exploitation children or sex trafficking”.

Specifically, FOSTA said Section 230 does not apply if the underlying complaint or offense is a violation of Federal Penal Code Section 1591 – the section prohibiting the sex trafficking of minors or the sex trafficking by force, fraud or coercion – or a new provision in FOSTA that prohibits the operation of an interactive computer service “with the intent to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person”.

So in a post-FOSTA world, someone who says they were sex trafficked and Reddit helped facilitate it could sue Reddit and maybe stand a chance of winning, or at least taking the case to court.

The unanswered question was how radical FOSTA’s amendment of Section 230 was.

It was unclear whether FOSTA meant that platforms “could be held liable when their users have violated the sex trafficking laws that underpin FOSTA, or whether they themselves must have violated those laws,” Noted lawyers Dillon Kraus, J. Alexander Lawrence and Aaron Rubin at JD Supra. Now, for the first time, “a federal appeals court has interpreted to what extent the FOSTA exception to section 230 applies.”

A refreshingly narrow exception

The Ninth Circuit interpreted FOSTA to create a narrow and refreshing exception to Section 230 protections.

“The dispute in this case is whether the availability of FOSTA’s immunity exception depends on a plaintiff proving that a defendant website’s own conduct—rather than the conduct of its users—caused a breach of [federal sex trafficking laws]. We believe it does,” the court said, upholding a lower court ruling that said Section 230 barred the trial of Jane Does.

The Does in this case failed to prove that Reddit knowingly benefited as soon as their images are published. This means that Reddit’s conduct did not violate federal sex trafficking lawwhich requires violations to be committed”knowingly” and – in cases that revolve around allegations that an entity is guilty not by direct action but by “participation in a business” – for some kind of personal benefit.

If Reddit itself did not knowingly take advantage of this, there was no underlying criminal conduct here to warrant a civil suit.

“This cause of action required that Reddit’s own conduct violate Section 1591, not the conduct of its users,” Kraus, Lawrence and Rubin noted. “This conclusion ultimately means that plaintiffs’ claims against Reddit could not have survived, even if Section 230 did not exist at all.”

Overall, the ruling is good news for those who value internet freedom, which is not to say that the posting of sexually explicit images of minors should be allowed. Yet the fact is that Reddit and other mainstream websites don’t To allow this kind of activity. It’s prohibited by their terms of service, and it’s removed when Reddit is notified. But changing the balance of accountability here could cause websites to not engage in content moderation or not provide a notification process at all, because being informed could make them more accountable, which would mean that even more illegal and disreputable content could thrive on them.

In short: a solid reading of Section 230 keeps more bad stuff out of the internet.

Similarly, a finding that federal law only allows civil lawsuits against websites that engage in sex trafficking themselves helps prevent the courts from being cluttered with frivolous lawsuits and tech companies from losing out. a lot of time and resources in such pursuits.

The Ninth Circuit’s ruling is good news for anyone who feared a broader interpretation of FOSTA. But it also shows how FOSTA – despite all the fanfare surrounding its passage –was totally useless and useless.

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