The EFF filing, submitted to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals this month, is the latest development in a case dating back to 2004 against Roommates.com. The online rental service was sued for allegedly violating the Fair Housing Act by enabling users to post classifieds that discriminated against potential tenants based on race, religion, and other factors.
Roommates.com was originally granted immunity under the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which has historically protected web sites from being held liable for information posted by users. That initial ruling, however, was overturned on appeal in May, a move the civil liberties-oriented EFF says has muddied the CDAâ€™s legal waters, creating an atmosphere that will make web entrepreneurs reluctant to take chances.
I find this case fascinating. It took me three years of living in the USA, and a course that my friend John forced me to go on, before I understood what redlining was. Even today I cannot believe that this practice happened in the USA, that it was so explicit, and that it was so recent. So I share the court’s disgust, and their reasoning:
The court said that because Roommates.com requires site users to fill out questionnaires and then lets users search or receive email notifications based on those responses, the site is a content creator.
â€œBy categorizing, channeling, and limiting the distribution of usersâ€™ profiles, Roommate provides an additional layer of information that it is â€˜responsibleâ€™ at least â€˜in partâ€™ for creating or developing,â€ reads the opinion. The opinion also holds Roommates.com accountable for content creation for the way it displays user responses to the questionnaires.
But I also know that forcing this off the internet will not end citizens discriminating against each other (they will just do it offline) and that such discrimination can have useful purposes. People just want to be with other people who are like them.
The issues raised in this case are particularly troubling for me as an Arab. Sectarian violence is ripping apart our societies and it all begins with one citizen acting on their difference in religion to another citizen. Stopping that observance of differences is a noble goal but banning it on websites would be a naive masking of the problem.