This seems like a no-brainer to anyone who understands Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act but for some reason it still hasn’t stopped defendants from making the tried and failed argument that Section 230 protects a platform from their own unlawful conduct.
Plaintiffs: Federal Trade Commission, State of California, State of Colorado, State of Florida, State of Illinois, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and State of New York
Defendants: Roomster Corporation, John Shriber, indivudally and officer of Roomster, and Roman Zaks, individually and as an officer of Roomster.
Roomster (roomster.com) is an internet-based (desktop and mobile app) room and roommate finder platform that purports to be an intermediary (i.e., the middle man) between individuals who are seeking rentals, sublets, and roommates. For anyone that has been around for a minute in this industry, you might be feeling like we’ve got a little bit of a Roommates.com legal situation going on here but it’s different. Roomster, like may platforms that allows third-party content also known as User Generated Content (“UGC”) platforms, does not verify listings or ensure that the listings are real or authentic and has allegedly allowed postings to go up where the address of the listing was a U.S. Post Office. Now this might seem out of the ordinary to an every day person reading this, but I can assure you, it’s nearly impossible for any UGC platform to police every listing, especially if they are a small company and have any reasonable volume of traffic and it would become increasingly hard to try and moderate as they grow. That’s just the truth of operating a UGC platform.
Notwithstanding these fake posting issues, Plaintiffs allege that Defendants have falsely represented that properties listed on the Roomster platform are real, available, and verified. [OUCH!] They further allege that Defendants have created or purchased thousands of fake positive reviews to support these representations and placed fake rental listings on the Internet to drive traffic to their platform. [DOUBLE OUCH!] If true, Roomster may be in for a ride.
The FTC has alleged that Defendants’ acts or practices violate Section 5(a) of the FTC Act, 15 U.S.C. § 45(a) (which in layman terms is the federal law against unfair methods of competition) and the states have alleged the various state versions of deceptive acts and practices. At this point, based on the alleged facts, it seems about right to me.
Roomster filed a Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) for Plaintiffs alleged failure to state a claim for various reasons that I won’t discuss, but you can read about in the case, but also argued that “even if Plaintiffs may bring their claims, Defendants cannot be held liable for injuries stemming from user-generated listings and reviews because … they are interactive computer service providers and so are immune from liability for inaccuracies in user-supplied content, pursuant to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, 47 U.S.C. § 230.” Where is the facepalm emoji when you need it? Frankly, that’s a “hail-mary” and total waste of an argument … because Section 230 does not immunize a defendant from liability from its own unlawful conduct. Indeed, a platform can be held liable for for offensive content on its service or system if it contributes to the development of what makes the content unlawful. This is also true where a platform has engaged in deceptive practices, or has had direct participation in a deceptive scheme. Fortunately, like many courts before it, the court in this case saw through the crap and rightfully denied the Motion to Dismiss on this (and other points).
I smell a settlement in the air, but only time will tell.
Case Citation: Fed. Trade Comm’n v. Roomster Corp., Case No. 22 Civ 7389 (S.D. N.Y., Feb. 1, 2023)
DISCLAIMER: This is for general information only. None of this is meant to be legal advice nor should it be relied upon as such.