Green v. America Online, 318 F.3d 465 (3d Cir. 2003) (full-text).
Plaintiff, John Green, subscribed to AOL, the world’s largest interactive computer service. A subscriber to AOL must agree to the terms of its Member Agreement, which requires subscribers to adhere to AOL’s standards for online speech and conduct set forth in AOL’s “Community Guidelines”. Green alleges that when he entered into an AOL chat room, John Doe 1 sent a computer program which caused Green’s computer to lock up and Green had to restart his computer. As a result, Green alleges he lost five hours of work restarting his computer, causing him damages of approximately $400.
Upon returning to the chat room, Green learned that “LegendaryPOLCIA” claimed credit for producing what he called “the blue screen of death.” Green claims that he and unidentified others reported John Doe 1 to AOL who informed him that they would take no action unless he provided evidence that “LegendaryPOLICIA” sent the destructive program. Green claims that although he did provide additional evidence, AOL took no effective action to stop the user. Additionally, Green’s complaint alleges that he was defamed by “LegendaryPOLICIA” (John Doe I) and “Lawyerkiii” (John Doe II) and AOL did nothing to stop it.
The complaint purported to plead a general negligence claim against AOL for failure to police its services. There were also allegations that AOL’s Community Guidelines violated Green’s First Amendment rights because they required Green to adhere to them. Green further alleged that AOL violated the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act by filing legal actions against third parties for sending spam to AOL subscribers and by blocking access to unspecified “internet newsgroups.”
District Court Proceedings
The court denied Green’s motion to remand after AOL removed the action to federal court. Since Green was alleging a violation of his First Amendment rights, there was a clear invocation of federal question jurisdiction and removal was proper. Notice of removal was not necessary because the John Does were not known.
The district court found that the [[tort] claims were subject to the ISP immunity provisions of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (47 U.S.C. §230). Green argued that AOL waived its immunity under Section 230 by the terms of its membership contract with him and because AOL’s Community Guidelines outline standards for online speech and conduct contained promises that AOL would protect Green from other subscribers. But the court found that AOL expressly disclaimed liability for any content provided by third parties or for failure in removing messages.
Additionally, the court found that the agreement and guidelines did not confer any rights on the customer, and the ISP did not promise to protect the subscriber from the acts of other subscribers. The court also found that the First Amendment claim lacked merit because the ISP was a private company not subject to constitutional guarantees. As for the state Consumer Fraud Act, the court found that it was not violated because the ISP did not act unconscionably and its agreement was not dishonest or entered into in bad faith.
Appellate Court Proceedings
The court of appeals affirmed the decision. More specifically, the court agreed that AOL was immune from Green’s tort claims under Section 230. There was no dispute that AOL was an interactive computer service provider or that the relevant content originated not from AOL but from “another information content provider.”