Strictly Legal: Craigslist Not Liable in Sex Trafficking Case

A woman who sued civilly for damages for being the victim of a sex trafficking operation cannot pursue her claims against Craigslist. The Online Service is immune from claims under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Beginning in 2008, when LH was fifteen years old, two men brutally orchestrated his trafficking for commercial purposes over the next ten years. She was regularly held for purchase at hotels in Miami-Dade County.

Through the website, Craigslist’s internal messaging system allowed traffickers and sex buyers to remain anonymous and hidden when negotiating sales. Despite Craigslist’s purported Terms of Service policies and guidelines, LH traffickers have posted sexually explicit, nude and partially nude photographs of her, combined with coded wording, to advertise LH for purposes commercial.

Craigslist responded to the complaint with a motion to dismiss, arguing that it is immune from liability under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act immunizes providers of interactive computer services, including websites like Craigslist, from claims holding the website responsible for third-party content posted on its Internet platform.

LH argued that Craigslist was not immune because it contributed content provided by traffickers. Her post focused primarily on Craigslist creating a section of its platform devoted to “erotic services”, but also highlighted features such as Craigslist’s built-in messaging system (which enables confidential communications between buyers and sellers, as well as the exchange of sexually explicit photographs) and its policy of accepting prepaid credit cards for fees and cell phones for contacts, which help users maintain their anonymity. According to LH, these features demonstrated that Craigslist contributed significantly to the advertisements that LH traffickers posted on the platform.

LH failed to convince the court with this argument. In his view, Craigslist did not create or develop content simply by providing tools to make user-generated content available and usable by others. The court viewed these features as “neutral tools, which did nothing to reinforce the illegality of the traffickers’ messages.” As the court noted, “[w]While some of its allegations demonstrate Craigslist’s appalling lack of diligence in preventing traffic, not a single one establishes that Craigslist created or developed the traffic content. And for this reason, Craigslist has not lost its immunity.

This is one of those cases where the court is probably right under the law. Thin.

Jack Greiner is a partner at the law firm Graydon in Cincinnati. He represents Enquirer Media on First Amendment and media issues

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