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Snap can be sued for fueling a fatal car crash with its speed filter, court rules

Snap can be sued for fueling a fatal car crash with its speed filter, court rules


The controversial filter crops up yet again in court

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Snap can be sued over a Snapchat speed filter that allegedly encouraged reckless driving, despite the generally broad legal protections for social networks. The Ninth Circuit Appeals Court revived a case that was dismissed in 2020, reversing an earlier ruling that favored Snap. It concluded that even if users were populating the filter with their own high driving speeds, Snap could still be liable for implicitly rewarding that behavior.

Lemmon v. Snap was filed after a 20-year-old Snapchat user crashed his car while using the filter, at one point driving over 120 miles per hour. The 2017 crash killed the driver and two teenage passengers. Two of the victims’ parents sued Snap for wrongful death, saying its combination of an opaque achievement system and speed filter enticed users to drive at unsafe speeds.

What is Section 230?

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which was passed in 1996, says an “interactive computer service” can’t be treated as the publisher or speaker of third-party content. This protects websites from lawsuits if a user posts something illegal, although there are exceptions for pirated and prostitution-related material.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rep. Chris Cox (R-CA) crafted Section 230 so website owners could moderate sites without worrying about legal liability. The law is particularly vital for social media networks, but it covers many sites and services, including news outlets with comment sections — like The Verge. The Electronic Frontier Foundation calls it “the most important law protecting internet speech.”

It’s increasingly controversial and frequently misinterpreted, however. Critics argue that its broad protections let powerful companies ignore real harm to users. On the other hand, some lawmakers incorrectly claim that it only protects “neutral platforms” — a term that’s irrelevant to the law.

The parents claimed many teenagers believed — and that Snap knew they believed — they’d get a secret achievement for hitting speeds of 100 miles per hour. Snap countered that no such achievement existed and that it was just providing a tool for users to post their own content, an action mostly shielded under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

The Ninth Circuit didn’t rule on whether Snap was liable. But it concluded that it wasn’t protected here by Section 230, which prevents sites and apps from being sued over what users post. Instead, it said the lawsuit “presents a clear example of a claim that simply does not rest on third-party content.” The company “indisputably designed” the reward system and speed filter, which allegedly created a defective product. “In short, Snap, Inc. was sued for the predictable consequences of designing Snapchat in such a way that it allegedly encouraged dangerous behavior.”

A lower court reached a different conclusion last year. As legal blogger Eric Goldman explains, it called the filter “essentially a speedometer tool” and noted that Snapchat warned users against driving at high speeds. The lawsuit, it said, was trying to hold Snap liable for a user acting dangerously and posting about it.

The driver allegedly thought Snapchat would give him a trophy for hitting 100 miles per hour

Snap’s speed filter has a tortured history in court. An Uber driver sued the company separately in 2016 after he collided with a Snapchat user allegedly trying to hit 100 miles per hour. In that case, a lower court did initially side with the driver, but a Georgia appeals court reversed the decision and said Snapchat’s speed filter wasn’t designed to encourage speeding.

Lemmon v. Snap’s revival cites a landmark 2008 ruling against, which found that Section 230 didn’t apply when the site specifically guided users to answer potentially discriminatory questions like their racial preferences, even if users were the ones actually supplying the answers. still ended up winning the overall lawsuit, and Snap could prevail in this case, but Lemmon v. Snap would set a precedent for interpreting Section 230 unless the Supreme Court took it up — which it’s declined to do for Section 230-related cases so far.

Some earlier high-profile suits have also basically argued that a social network is defective for facilitating conduct like harassment, only to be defeated on Section 230 grounds. This ruling hints that this court wouldn’t necessarily be sympathetic to those claims, though. It distinguishes the Snap case from what it calls “creative pleading” designed to get around the law, and it applies that label to suits that, “at bottom, depended on a third party’s content.” Even so, it’s one of relatively few major court rulings limiting Section 230’s scope — at a time when the law is increasingly embattled.

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