Last year, Jitka Vesel was tragically murdered by a stalker in Chicago. Vesel met her murderer, Demetry Smirnov, online – three years before she was murdered. The two dated for mere weeks before she broke it off. Two-and-a-half years later, he showed up to her workplace and murdered her in cold blood, reports the Daily Beast.
Smirinov used a .40 caliber handgun which purchased from a private seller, also found online, via Armslist, a firearms classified site. Much like Craigslist, Armslist is a completely neutral online marketplace. All ads, transactions, and purchases are done through the users. The website even has a disclaimer that must be agreed to before entering that requires all users to comply with the law when dealing between themselves.
So what’s the issue? The Brady Campaign, who is representing the victim’s family, is arguing that the site was negligent in the way it handles purchases, especially interstate purchases. There are no background checks performed by the site, nor are the ads restricted to only those who are in a certain state.
While retail gun dealers are required to perform background checks prior to making a sale, private parties may not be required to, depending on each state’s laws. Smirinov was a Russian immigrant living in Canada and therefore shouldn’t have been able to buy a gun at all. And in this case, Armslist isn’t even the seller – they are a classified ad provider.
Despite the complaint’s discussion of background checks, these are not relevant to the case. The true issue in the case is whether Armslist, a neutral online website with content created by users, can be held liable for the actions of its users. By federal law, the answer should be a resounding “no.”
The Communications Decency Act is a federal law that was passed in 1996. Though it deals with indecency and obscenity for much of the law, the most important provision, Section 230, provides 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.”
Imagine an internet without the CDA. Internet trolls that speak ill of others on websites’ comments sections could lead to defamation suits against those sites. A notable 2006 decision applied the law to the mother of all classifieds: Craigslist. That lawsuit was brought because the users who were posting housing ads on Craigslist’s Chicago site were stating discriminatory preferences for tenants, which violates a number of state and federal laws.
The court dismissed the case, citing Section 230 of the CDA.
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