Web firms fear legal action over user comments

Web firms fear legal action over user comments

Big guns backing Roommates.com

A number of high-profile internet companies and organisations are seeking to overturn a court decision that could see them prosecuted for comments made by their users.

Amazon, eBay, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo all argue that websites cannot be held responsible for content posted by users following a Federal case brought against Roommates.com.

The Fair Housing Councils of San Fernando Valley and San Diego had argued in the Roommates case that questionnaires asking for specific types of roommates violated the Fair Housing Act.

The group has filed a 'friend of the court' brief [PDF] to "respectfully urge the court to adhere to the broad interpretation of 47 USC 230 that has been adopted by the courts during the decade since its enactment".

The law provides 'interactive computer service providers' with immunity from prosecution for unlawful content originated by users or third parties.

"In particular, as these courts have recognised, Section 230 bars a claim whenever (i) the defendant asserting immunity is an interactive service provider, (ii) the particular information at issue was provided by 'another information content provider', and (iii) the claim 'treats' the defendant as a 'publisher or speaker' of that information," the filing states.

The group describes itself in the court documents as "providers of interactive computer services or organisations that either represent such service providers or represent the interest of those who disseminate information online".

The filing also says that the group is fighting for "the interests of the public at large in forging a dynamic internet".

The group includes a number of pressure groups and professional organisations, including the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), the Association of Competitive Technology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Internet Commerce Coalition, the Online News Association and the US Internet Service Provider Association.

"The CDT joined with other public interest and internet industry groups to urge a Federal appeals court to shield websites from legal action stemming from content their users post," an official CDT statement said.

"The 'friend of the court' brief, which CDT joined, argued that Section 230 protection is vital to robust speech and debate on the internet, and that a website should not lose that protection because it gives users specific options for expressing their views."