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Ninth Circuit declines to revive child porn class action against Reddit

Past news reports have billed Reddit as a hub for child pornography that does little to prevent users from circulating, trading and encouraging sexually explicit content of minors.

(CN) — A Ninth Circuit panel on Monday affirmed a lower court's dismissal of a class action brought against Reddit over users' posting and circulating child pornography on its platform. 

“We conclude, based on the law as written by Congress, that civil plaintiffs seeking to overcome section 230 immunity for sex trafficking claims must plead and prove that a defendant-website’s own conduct violated 18 U.S.C. § 1591," U.S. Circuit Judge Milan Smith, a George W. Bush appointee, led the wrote for the panel, referring to the Communications Decency Act.

“For claims based on beneficiary liability, this requires that the defendant knowingly benefited from knowingly facilitating sex trafficking.  Because the plaintiffs have not plead that Reddit has done so in this case, we affirm," Smith added.

The case stems from an April 2021 lawsuit in which Jane Doe sued Reddit after an abusive ex-boyfriend repeatedly posted and circulated pornography of her that he filmed with and without her consent while she was underage.

According to Doe, posts were accompanied by “crude, disparaging, misogynistic and/or racist remarks,” some of which encouraged Reddit users to “film themselves jerking off to the images” and post to Reddit.

As soon as she became aware of the posts, Doe says she repeatedly reported the videos to moderators, much of whom consist of volunteers, stating she was underage and never consented to distribution. She says she had better luck having the videos removed when she claimed a copyright violation, but her ex-boyfriend would simply repost the video again and even created new accounts when Reddit banned his original account.

“Because Reddit refused to help, it fell to Jane Doe to monitor no less than 36 subreddits — that she knows of — which Reddit allowed her ex-boyfriend to repeatedly use to repeatedly post child pornography,” Doe said in her lawsuit. “This is despite the fact that, as Reddit well knew, throughout this time her ex-boyfriend uploaded the content from the identical IP address.”

Reddit has been accused before of being a hub for child pornography that does little to prevent users from circulating, trading and encouraging sexually explicit content of minors. In her lawsuit, Doe claims Reddit didn’t have a rule banning child pornography until Gawker reporter Adrian Chen revealed the identity of Reddit user Michael Brutsch, who set up more than100 Reddit communities or “subreddits” where “users could share links and images of underage girls, rape fantasy and upskirt photos.”

But even after the site closed subreddits from “the creepy uncle of Reddit,” similar groups continued to emerge.

In 2014, Reddit received backlash after nude images of two underage public figures were posted to the subreddit called “/r/thefappening.” In September 2020, The U.S. Sun revealed how a Reddit user and moderator — who joined the subreddit /r/PedoGate, which was supposedly for bringing justice to children — confessed, on the subreddit, to being obsessed with child pornography.

In her class action, Doe leaned on which she claimed was Reddit’s complicity in child sex trafficking while generating profit via ad revenue and its failure to report child pornography. But in dismissing the case, U.S. District Court Judge James Selna found Reddit is not an “electronic communication service provider” like Craigslist is — it’s an interactive computer service. So Reddit enjoys immunity from claims like Doe's under the Communications Decency Act since it's not responsible for content posted by its users.

Additionally, the Ninth Circuit panel found because “plaintiffs did not allege that Reddit knowingly participated in or benefitted from a sex trafficking venture, and they therefore failed to state a sex trafficking claim," the lawsuit failed.

“In this case, the plaintiffs have not alleged that Reddit knowingly participated in or benefitted from a sex trafficking venture. They allege that Reddit provides a platform where it is easy to share child pornography, highlights subreddits that feature child pornography to sell advertising on those pages, allows users who share child pornography to serve as subreddit moderators, and fails to remove child pornography even when users report it, as the plaintiffs did in this case.  Together, they say, this amounts to knowing participation in a sex trafficking venture," Smith wrote for the panel.

“Taken as true, these allegations suggest only that Reddit ‘turned a blind eye’ to the unlawful content posted on its platform, not that it actively participated in sex trafficking. Moreover, the plaintiffs have not alleged a connection between the child pornography posted on Reddit and the revenue Reddit generates, other than the fact that Reddit makes money from advertising on all popular subreddits.”

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