Yahoo has won a legal battle over its long delay in removing nude photos that an Oregon woman claimed her ex-boyfriend posted on its website without her knowledge or permission.
The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed that internet service providers such as Yahoo are generally protected from liability for materials published or posted on their sites by outside parties.
But the court left open the possibility that the woman, Cecilia Barnes, could sue Yahoo over whether it had promised to remove the photos and the unauthorised profile, amounting to a breach of contract.
Barnes filed a lawsuit in 2005 in Portland claiming her ex-boyfriend not only posted nude photos taken of her without her knowledge or consent, but also created a fraudulent profile with personal information and posed as her in an online chat room to solicit sex.
As the court noted: "Before long, men whom Barnes did not know were peppering her office with emails, phone calls and personal visits, all in the expectation of sex."
"This case stems from a dangerous, cruel and highly indecent use of the internet for the apparent purpose of revenge," Judge Diarmuid O'Scannlain wrote.
According to court documents, even after Barnes notified Yahoo the profile was fraudulent and unauthorised, the Sunnyvale, California-based company failed to remove it for months - despite media attention - until Barnes filed a lawsuit.
Nonetheless, the court rejected arguments that Yahoo was negligent for failing to immediately remove the material.
In the opinion issued last week by O'Scannlain, the court said Yahoo was protected under a 1996 federal law that gives broad immunity to service providers to encourage the open exchange of material on the internet by its users.
The logic was that service providers shouldn't be liable for what their users do online, similar to the way phone companies aren't responsible for private conversations used to plan crimes.
Based on that provision, courts across the country have repeatedly sided with service providers in disputes over users' conduct.
Barnes' attorney, Thomas Rask of Portland, said internet service providers are getting a "blanket immunity" that "doesn't make sense."
"We've always argued you can't be immune for everything," Rask said.
Rask said Barnes will now pursue a breach of contract claim, adding that his client was "happy the court allowed her case to move forward at least in part." Barnes claimed that a Yahoo official promised to immediately remove the photos when a local TV station was preparing a report, but never followed through.
Yahoo officials released a statement today saying they were pleased with the ruling and were evaluating any breach of contract claim.