A U.S. federal appeals court ruled in favor of Grindr, a popular gay dating app, in a charge made against the company by a New York man who said that his former boyfriend used the app to post fake profiles, in a harassment campaign triggering a stream of 1,000 men approaching the victim with indecent proposals and sexual invitations.
The 3-0 decision by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals against Matthew Herrick is a challenge on how far the Communications Decency Act, a 1996 federal law that restricts pornography while allowing other speech online, can protect Internet-based and tech companies from the abuses of their users.
Initially, Herrick filed negligence and emotional distress claims from Grindr’s failure to remove his former boyfriend’s harassing and offensive postings but was turned down by a local court forcing the victim to take his case to an appellate court. The appeals court judges eventually rejected the email last week.
The court said Grindr was protected from liability for exercising “a publisher’s traditional editorial functions,” or providing “‘neutral assistance’ in the form of tools and functionality available equally to bad actors and the app’s intended users.”
Grindr, the famous gay dating app that turned ten years old last month, is owned by Beijing Kunlun Tech Co. The China-based gaming company is trying to sell Grindr after the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States said the ownership of the company posed a national security risk, as said by people familiar with the matter. Kunlun Group bought a 61.5% stake in 2016 from the company’s US founders, taking full control in January 2018 and planned for a stock market listing for the gay dating app. Investment bank Cowen has been taken on to manage the sale process. None of the parties involved has made any public comment on the reports.
In the initial complaint made by Herrick, he said that before he stopped using the app in 2015 but fake profiles of him caused as many as 16 strangers to visit him in his home or his place of work, a restaurant in New York, expecting for sex for several months starting October 2016.
He filed his lawsuit on January 2017 that was later dismissed by a federal judge a year after. Herrick’s lawyer Tor Ekeland said in an interview he was “disappointed but not surprised” by Wednesday’s decision because courts are “extremely deferential to big tech” when interpreting the CDA.
“What happened to Matthew is not an isolated incident,” Ekeland said. “Apps are being used to stalk, rape and murder. Under the court’s reading of the CDA, big tech companies don’t have the responsibility to do anything about it, even if they know it is happening. Congress needs to amend this statute.”
According to Moez Kaba, the lawyer representing Grindr, the decision clarified that CDA protections extend to apps. He said it is “important in the smartphone era, where so much activity is done on apps rather than through traditional web pages.
“No one disputes that the plaintiff’s situation was unfortunate,” he said, “but the 2nd Circuit was plainly correct in finding that apps and their owners cannot be liable for this sort of third-party conduct.”
Grindr, which is based in Los Angeles, is a hugely popular dating network for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, with more than 27 million users globally. It is free to use, with optional subscription plans for additional premium features. It was the first gay social networking app on the iTunes App Store and is currently available in 192 countries, although its user base is primarily located in developed countries in Europe and North America.
As the popularity of the app grew, many of the users have expressed their divorce from the app following the security concerns that have plagued the gay app as Z6Mag’s Reysel Montero reported. In the past years, Grindr has been bombarded with issues of pinpointing users’ location.
In 2014, it was reported that the app’s relative distance measurements could allow people to locate individual users, thus, compromising its privacy. Today, the said app is being used by countries especially in United Arab Emirates, Indonesia, Ukraine, Russia, and Egypt to track and arrest gay men; which is a significant violation to the individuals’ data privacy.