The circumstances of the wreck were outlined in a 2019 lawsuit filed by the parents of Brown and Morby, who alleged that the “negligent design” of the Snap Inc. app contributed to the crash because it encouraged speeding. But a California judge dismissed the case last year, citing the Communications Decency Act, which has long shielded tech companies and social media platforms for content published on their platforms.
But on Tuesday, a three-judge panel with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit reversed that decision, finding that the law doesn’t apply in this case because the key issue was not Snap’s role as a platform but rather the design of the app itself.
The “speed filter” is no longer available for driving speeds. A Snap spokeswoman declined to comment. The Santa Monica-based company was founded in 2011 and has a market cap of $82.4 billion.
Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act establishes that companies that operate online forums aren’t considered the publisher of the posts made on their sites, and therefore can’t be held liable for their content, even if the content itself is harmful or breaks a law.
Daphne Keller, director of the platform regulation program at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center, believes the ruling signals the potential for a legislative response and further court interpretation of Section 230.
“It’s not that there was some bad post that Snapchat failed to take down,” she said. “I think it’s useful to get court clarifications to tell us that 230 doesn’t immunize every single thing. It already has these built-in limits that are useful, and we don’t actually need to rush to pass these new laws if the actual law is more limited than people think.”
Jeff Kosseff, an assistant professor of cybersecurity law at the U.S. Naval Academy, said he thinks the Section 230 argument was a weak one for Snapchat to use.
“Stepping back, I think that Snapchat would have a much stronger argument on the merits of the case,” he said. “But it’s really right on the borders. It could’ve gone either way. I do think that the 9th Circuit’s ruling is a little difficult to square with some other appellate courts. I don’t think we quite have it yet, but I think we’re working our way to a circuit split where we would have the Supreme Court interpret 230.”
Tuesday’s ruling opens the door for plaintiffs Carly Lemmon, Michael Morby, Samantha Brown and Marlo Brown to pursue further action against Snap Inc.
“We appreciate the careful attention that the Ninth Circuit paid to this case, and the well-written, unanimous opinion reflects such thoughtful work by the panel,” Naveen Ramachandrappa, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, said in an email to The Washington Post. “We look forward to returning to the District Court and having this case move forward with discovery and a fair determination of the merits by a jury.”
Snapchat, which operates through one-to-one communication with messages, photos and video, or allows users to make photos or video available to only their list of friends, is popular among teenagers and young adults. The company has been snagged in several court cases related to student speech, including one that made it to the Supreme Court.
Its speed filter was the subject of another case in Georgia, after the plaintiff, Wentworth Maynard, was involved in a vehicle collision in 2015 that left him with a brain injury and alleged that the driver who hit him was using Snapchat’s speed filter to monitor her speed of more than 100 mph. Maynard, who was also represented by Ramachandrappa, sued both the driver and Snap for negligence, but the lower court and appellate court dismissed the allegations against Snap under Section 230.
Kosseff emphasized that Tuesday’s ruling was more significant than the Georgia appellate court’s dismissal because of the 9th Circuit Court’s location in San Francisco is proximity to where many Big Tech companies are headquartered. A flurry of legislative bills targeting Section 230 have surfaced within the past year as politicians on opposing sides wrestle with the question of regulation Big Tech. Kosseff noted the significance of two of the circuit judges (the third was a guest judge) on the panel — appointed by presidents from different parties — agreeing on the issue. Kim McLane Wardlaw, who delivered the opinion, was appointed by President Bill Clinton while Carlos T. Bea was appointed by President George W. Bush.
“The 9th Circuit is the most important court for Section 230 cases, other than the Supreme Court,” he said. “I think that they both agreed on this is worth noting.”