When a tragedy occurs, it's human instinct to find someone to blame -- even if said tragedy was an accident… or self-inflicted. When Andrew Witkoff overdosed on Oxycodone he obtained from someone he met on a website, his parents understandably looked to hold someone responsible for his death. But they chose to go after the website. And that hasn't resulted in any closure or remuneration, as Eric Goldman reports.
Topix is no stranger to legal maneuvers by parties who feel it should be held responsible for the content created by its users. Historically, this has taken the form of harassment from grandstanding government officials. In this case, it's the boy's parents. Both have chosen the wrong target for their actions. The protections afforded by Section 230 of the CDA explicitly bar websites from being held responsible for the actions of users.
The district court arrived at that conclusion last year. The Witkoffs appealed, only to find the higher court similarly inclined to find in favor of Topix, despite their use of a somewhat novel legal argument.
"Public nuisance" also includes the distribution of controlled substances, as Goldman points out. The problem is that -- even though Topix created the forum where Witkoff met someone who would sell him Oxycodone -- all content within the forum was generated by users. Public nuisance or not, Topix did not create the content, arrange the meeting between Witkoff and the other forum user or sell drugs to Andrew Witkoff.
The court also points out that, although the end result was the illegal sale (and illegal purchase) of a controlled substance, simply discussing controlled substances is not a criminal act.
As for the seeming oddness of Topix creating a forum for the discussion of Oxycodone, Goldman obtained a statement from a Topix rep. Basically, the site auto-generates any number of "topics/x," including the 842 forums it has algorithmically created to discuss a number of prescription drugs. If you're in the business of "generating" third-party content, any topic that starts a conversation is a win, no matter how sketchy it might appear from the outside. And, as the Second Circuit Appeals Court notes, simply discussing controlled substances is not illegal, even if any number of aggrieved parties would desperately like this to be true.
by Tim Cushing
September 18, 2015
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