Recently lawyers have begun to debate the question of just how much control advertisers can exert when paying for product placements or branded entertainment before the line between First Amendment expression by the creative staff putting together the program and the financial subsidies from advertisers is crossed. Now, the Ninth Circuit has dealt with a similar question relating to the immunity that interactive computer service providers have typically enjoyed under the Communications Decency Act (the “CDA”). The CDA insulates service providers from liability so long as the service provider remains a publisher of information and content of others (there are exceptions, so the immunity is not blanket and you should always consult legal advice for specifics that apply to your situation). That said, a company that operates an online web service that specializes in matching roommates based on their preferences has been held in violation of the Fair Housing Act because a questionnaire put together by the company asks for certain demographic information that, when posted on the website, could be used by users and site visitors to discriminate against others. The company, Roommates.com, asked users to disclose information, among other things, about roommate preferences such as age, sex, children, etc. The Ninth Circuit held that although Roommates.com was immune as long as it was simply enabling the distribution or display of information provided by its members, when it became an information content provider, it lost immunity with respect to that activity and information. And by putting together the questionnaires and soliciting their preferences in response, Roommates.com was not simply posting content authored by users, but rather was eliciting specific information that could be abused and that might or might not have been voluntarily posted or disclosed absent the questionnaires.
Hmmmm…user profiles, play lists, segmented marketing, asking consumers to participate in promotions…this is an interesting test of the limitations of the CDA to protect and insulate interactive online service providers from liability. As social networks, virtual worlds and other digital arenas that don’t simply enable but also solicit or encourage certain information to be provided, and as web services become more targeted, focused and segmented to match consumer preferences, the immunity is likely to be tested further. Stay tuned.