• Craigslist Fair Housing Suit Sparks Internet Publisher Debate
  • March 7, 2006
  • Law Firm: Reed Smith LLP - Pittsburgh Office
  • Ubiquitous clearinghouse craigslist is hotly disputing a lawsuit filed against it by a Chicago lawyers group seeking to hold the online service liable for alleged violations of fair housing laws in classified ads run on its Chicago site.

    The Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Inc. sued craigslist on Feb. 6 for running ads with language such as "no minorities," "African Americans and Arabians tend to clash with me so that won't work out," "Requirements: Clean Godly Christian Male," and "No children."

    Craigslist, which runs online classified sites for hundreds of locations across the United States and around the world, responded that it is being sued for 100 allegedly discriminatory ads posted by Chicago users in a six-month period, out of 200,000 housing ads submitted to chicago.craigslist.org in that timeframe.

    Further, craigslist "is not a publisher, but rather a community-moderated commons largely run by users, who self-publish and manage their own ads and use a flagging system to police the site," stated CEO Jim Buckmaster in a statement responding to the suit.

    Buckmaster cited Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which specifically states that "[n]o provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider."

    Several courts have interpreted this section as providing complete immunity for Internet Service Providers with regard to torts committed by their users over their systems.

    However, the Chicago Lawyers' Committee argues that craigslist functions more like a publisher than an ISP.

    "Craigslist does more than just provide the technology to access the internet," the Committee stated in a fact sheet regarding its suit. "Craigslist created a centralized marketplace in which housing providers and consumers can read and post housing ads. Craigslist specifically targets these services towards housing, as does the classified section of a print newspaper."

    The Committee disputed craigslist's claim that it would be overly burdensome for the 29 employee company to comply with fair housing laws, noting that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has produced guidelines that specify a list of words and phrases which if used in ads likely violate the Fair Housing Act.

    "We believe that ISPs can use existing filtering technology to screen housing listings, with very little need for manual review."

    Craigslist contends that its technology allows users to flag objectionable ads and that its staff pulls discriminatory ads that are flagged. But the Committee complained that housing discriminators, who often are anonymous, can simply repost their ads.

    Craigslist is a for-profit business, with a 25 percent stake in the company held by eBay. It is the most popular classified site in the country, with more than 87 million visitors a month, according to Investor's Business Daily.

    Why This Matters: The suit has highlighted a major ideological argument between those who feel that Internet Service Providers should be responsible for the legality of the content they provide, and those who think that individual content publishers alone should be held liable. The ramifications of this case are significant. If content providers are held liable for content posted or harvested from third parties, the free flow of information on the Internet will be severely burdened. But then again, class action attorneys have a knack for making things complicated.