A Federal District Court in Maryland recently granted a crowdfunding Web site immunity under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (“CDA”) from any claims arising from a fraudulent fundraiser posted on its Web site. The CDA states, “no 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.”
Kimani Johnson, with assistance from a friend, Catina Harris, posted information about a fundraiser on the GiveForward Web site claiming Johnson’s son was suffering from a heart condition. As a new fundraising campaign, GiveForward assigned a fundraising coach to Johnson to offer fundraising tips. However, Johnson and his son are estranged and his son does not suffer from a heart condition or health problems.
Kena Hodges, the boy’s mother, found out about the sham fundraiser and immediately notified GiveForward. GiveForward blocked the fundraiser content, conducted an investigation, and returned donated all funds back the donors.
GiveForward anticipated Hodges bringing suit against it, and thus sought a declaratory judgment stating that it is immune under Section 230 of the CDA from any claims related to the boy’s fundraiser.
The court held there was no evidence that GiveForward created the content at issue in the case. The court rejected Hodges’ argument that GiveForward’s “fundraising coaches” helped shape the content of the fundraiser. In fact, Johnson and Harris testified that neither of them had any contact from anyone at GiveForward during the creation of the fundraiser nor did they rely on any emails sent by the fundraising coach.
Next, the court rejected Hodges’ argument that she based some claims on GiveForward’s independent fraudulent actions, and not on it being a publisher or speaker. The court found that Hodges could not maintain her independent claims. Hodges did not persuade the court that GiveForward created content in the form of tweets, widgets, and thank you emails sent to donors. And the court rejected the idea that there is a distinction between publishing and distributing the fundraiser pursuant to the CDA.
This is the first decision applying CDA immunity to a crowdfunding Web site, and it reaffirms the broad protection the CDA grants Web site operators. Even Web sites that deal with creeps like Kimani Johnson.