back to article 'Gay or straight?' ruling looks bad for all US social networking sites

The world just got a little scarier for social network providers. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals just determined that - a networking site for people looking for, well, roommates - did not deserve immunity under Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act for information that users of the site provide on …


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  1. Paul Barton


    If I read the article right, "For example, a straight male seeking a room could only search profiles of those users who had indicated during registration that they would live with a straight male" is the crucial issue in this case.

    The court, apparently, has no problem with users saying anything that is illegal eg discriminatory as the article at first seems to imply. Roomates has filtered the information its users have submitted to provide different content to different users (not different content to the same users depending on how they search or browse the site), so the judgement does not extend to MySpace and especially not to Google.

    Should all automated processing of 3rd party content be covered by the Section 230 immunity? I don't know, this court thinks not, but the problem isn't as wide-ranging as your reporter seems to believe.

  2. Chris Dymond



    when you put articles up about legal rulings could you mention which jurisdiction you're talking about? Here in the UK, as in many other parts of the world, internet activity is governed under several layers of often competing legal frameworks, e.g. national and supranational (EU) jurisdiction for both the host and client locations - it's sometimes difficult to work out which of those you're referring to. You've got a global audience, just as some of the sites have that feature in your articles, so 'section 230 of the Communications Decency Act' is really a local ordinance in those terms (although its effects are obviously far wider).

    Much obliged :-)


  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    That's pretty clear. The title says it's in the U.S. and the article refers to the 9th circuit court (California).

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    bad judgement from justices

    The ninth circuit court of appeals is the most overturned federal circuit in the United States. Because of their generally inconsistent rulings, it is not a bellweather of legal jurisprudence even in California, let alone the United States. Let us not even talk about North America or beyond. You can look up a little about that court on the internet if you wish. The issue of safe harbor provisions being set aside just because of computerised filtering is not settled law. So no worries here.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Screw the 9th Circuit

    ... and the horse they rode in on.

  6. Russell Sakne

    Regardless of the respect... which the 9th circuit is held in the legal profession, isn't it just a bit strange that it's considered illegal for an accommodation finding service to apply the preferences of its clients? If a university accommodation office was to ignore the wishes of someone seeking to live with folk of the same sex, there are cases where they'd be sued for incompetence, and if they sent men round to properties where the current residents were all-female, I'm certain there would be a stink.

  7. Stuart

    Right decision in my opinion

    It seems to me that the site was blatently breaking the relevant law, by assisting/allowing/encouraging illegal discrimination. Rather than acting as a 'billboard' owner, the site was prompting users for information which could then be used to discriminate automatically - hardly an activity deserving legal protection.

    The site should have removed the requirement to enter gender/sexual preference/race information, and the ability to filter based on it, to meet the standards set by the law.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Right decision? Possibly, but not because of discrimination...

    The decision is correct in that it automatically assumed that the user, for example a straight male, should only be restricted to browsing profiles that fit the user's profile as a room mate. If the site allowed the user to filter all profiles for himself, i.e. instead looking for profiles that were looking for straight females as room mates, then it probably would have fallen under the protection of the safe harbor provisions. But because the choice was automatically done by the site, that additional processing kicked the site out from under the protection.

    The whole discrimination claim stems from this pre-processed selection of profiles. One can but assume that this profiling cannot be changed. The requirement to enter such information is not discriminatory in itself. The automatic filtering without the possibility of changing the filtering is.

  9. Ash

    Fine, don't filter the results...

    ... but if I say I want a female roommate with no children and I get male applicants, you can bet your boots i'll discriminate against them on my doorstep by politely declining their application. All this service does is ensure you get people you may actually want to live with you applying.

    It's not about discriminating against anybody!

  10. A J Stiles

    This could be good news

    The whole argument boils down to this: If personal information is being stored, and can be accessed -- even indirectly, by some non-obvious method -- then it has the potential to be misused. Well, the easiest way to prevent that misuse is just not to store that information in the first place.

    It's OK to insist for a sexually-compatible (or sexually incompatible, depending how you look at it) roommate. That's a private matter between them. What's not OK is if an employer, by pretending to be someone looking for a roommate, can determine the sexuality of job applicants and then use that information to deny them employment.

    There are already way too many websites for my liking that ask if a user is male or female. I personally consider that to be rather privileged information -- after all, unless you are intending to have sex with me, or give me certain kinds of medical treatment, you don't need to know what is between my legs. (Though it might be useful for you to know, if you just wish to decide whether you will get more benefit by showing me advertisements for shoes or advertisements for video games. The answer is, neither -- I block adverts at the proxy and would never, ever dream of clicking on the few that slip through.) You certainly don't need to know it just to provide me with an internet service such as web-based e-mail or access to published articles.

    Technically, denying a woman access to video game adverts because of her sex (or a man access to shoe adverts because of his sex) is a breach of sex discrimination legislation; albeit hardly one over which it would be worth pressing charges. But just you wait until some tech-savvy loony gets the idea to pick his (or her .....) victims by studying the targeted advertisements they were receiving over the Internet .....

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    At last

    So all you ladies looking for a tall slim handsome guy will have to date me by law from now on...

  12. Craig

    Re: This could be good news

    A J,

    A brilliant point well written.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What about dating web sites?

    Well, specifiying age, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation info (usually required for a dating web site), and filtering results of searches by prospective dates or mates would seemingly fall under not this some sort of discrimination? Of course it is, but it would be utterly ridiculous to not allow searching for a companion by such criteria!

    I wonder if this judge would rule discrimination if I searched for a car by make, model, year, color, and options to be illegal? It would make about as much sense as this Rommates ruling.....but I digress!

  14. Matthew

    Unbelievable ignorance

    Am I the only one completely up in arms about the absurdity. That act as I understand is largely so renters can't discriminate. This site is meant to help people who MUST LIVE TOGETHER find a match. People who sign up surely know that it is to find a compatible roommate! Where is any possible discrimination taking place!? This has me livid. This ruling basically says I have no say in the gender, race, or sexual preference of the people who I must share a roof with! What idiotic nonsense is that? Is the state now going to dictate whom I can sleep with too?!

  15. StarsAndStripesForever

    9th Circus Court

    The 9th Circuit Court is widely referred to as the 9th Circus Court on this side of the pond because it is overturned on appeal more than any other court. It is chock full of very left leaning liberals.

  16. Dick

    No Matthew, you've got it wrong.

    There are limited exceptions to housing non-discrimination laws for single rooms and roommates. The problem addressed by the original lawsuit is that regular landlords, not just roommate seekers, are using these services to get renters, and landlords are generally subject to the law.

  17. William


    This is a fairly specific judgement, which has been mischaracterised by this article. The judgement stated simply that if a website has fields which are REQUIRED to be filled out,(in this case, gender and sexual preference), then that website is gathering information and cannot claim to be protected.

    Contrast that with the optional notes people could put on their postings- such as "applicant shouldnt be adverse to sexual encounter with my wife and me". The judge specifically noted these notes were protected, because they were not compelled by the website.

    Go fill out a job application in many countries- there is an optional section where you can choose to identify if you are a member of a minority. If you were REQUIRED to state your race, that would be illegal. And the website in question did require people to fill on those fields before their applications would go through. Hence, they were breaking the law. The only effect of this ruling is to guarantee that websites cannot compel information from their users, they must provide a "none of the above" or "no preference" option.

  18. Matthew

    Interesting, if not still obtuse

    I would be surprised if the website did not have options for no preference or no comment. However, even if they do not have such options, I still find the decision heinous Dick...

    The intent of the website, by definition is people finding other people for a roommate. Misuse of the site and information, IMO, does not warrant placing blame on the middle man who is not compelling anyone to use the service, nor is misrepresenting what the service is for, nor is giving any indication that they "care" about the information provided. If someone lies when filling it out, is the site to be blamed too?

    Additionally, you say renters misuse the site. Imagine renters going to a nearby gay club and taking pictures of people there, filing them away and cross-referencing them when applicants come in (is this not the same as trying to look people up on to find their sexual preference?), would the club/bar then be responsible for advertising that it is a club catering to gay people? It is a public place, the same as the web-site. You don't want to use it, then simply don't.

    My simple point is that I'm tired of hearing people crying foul when there was no intent. IMO, the ruling is absurd, perhaps the law was broken, yet IMNSHO the spirit of the law has been broken more.

  19. Shun Fukuda

    9th Circuit Jurisdiction and other

    The U.S. court system is divided into State courts and Federal Courts.

    The 9th circuit is a Federal Appeals Court which has jurisdiction over quite a few states. California, Oregon, Washington...for a full listing see :

    Northern Mariana Islands, w00t!! At any rate, here in the states, you will typically commit crimes in the states (State), or across state lines (Federal). If you sail the Black Pearl across the seven seas and raid the overseas interests of the Great USA Company, then you will most likely be prosecuted in a court of Admiralty (assuming they bother with all that legal mumbo jumbo.)

    All Federal cases start in a District Court...then are appealed their corresponding X Circuit Court of Appeal. Obviously, this case started in one of the above states (probably California, since we have the most lawyers). Went to a 3 judge panel, decision was handed down, then one of the parties requested a hearing with the entire court. So, what have we learned from this experience?

    If you are a coder, always put a "none of the above" "decline to state" or "unknown/refused to answer" option in your drop down lists. It will save you lots of regulatory headaches. Besides, its nice to be a "gender : none", every once in a while.

    Irony: U.S. laws are derived from something called English Common Law. See anything in common?

  20. Josh

    Not Discrimination...

    On part:

    " requires people looking for roommates to fill out forms with personal information about themselves, as well as their preferences for their roommates. Through drop-down menus, registrants can state a desire to live with only straight males with no children, or with only lesbians with children, or several other similar combinations."

    Key words being "registrants can state a desire to live with..."; just allows it's customers to discriminate, which I didn't think was illegal when you are choosing who you will live with. (If it is, it shouldn't be)

    And who was the dumbass who tried this case? Why would you want roommate listings delivered to you of people who have already decided they won't live with you anyway?

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    "Why would you want roommate listings delivered to you of people who have already decided they won't live with you anyway?"

    Well if you're the sort of person who bought a video recorder to tape programmes you don't watch, and plays them when you're out ....

  22. kain preacher

    craigs list

    they tried to sue craigs lis saying that since they allowed people to discfiminate, they were violation fiar housing laws.

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