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Could Suit Triggered by Harassment via Grindr Impact Online Free Speech?

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Jan 7, 2019

A New York City man claims that his ex used fake Grindr profiles to send an unending procession of men to his door looking for sex, with some of them becoming verbally abusive when he tried to explain that he didn't actually meet them online. But his suit against Grindr — which uses a novel legal approach — has some free speech and Internet advocates worried about the wider effects a ruling in his favor could bring.

The plaintiff in the case, Matthew Herrick, is an actor and model, Cosmopolitan reported when profiling his case in 2017. The ariclt noted that the harassment started in October of 2016, and at the time of the article's publication Herrick had estimated that the total of strangers showing up at his door thanks to his ex spoofing him with multiple fake profiles had exceeded 700.

Fast forward to now: That number has shot past 1,000, an article posted last September by Electronic Frontier Foundation reports. EFF goes on to say that Herrick's original suit had been tossed out, but that he has filed an appeal. EFF's worry: That a successful appeal could mean a significant loss of freedom of speech for users on the Internet if Herrick succeeds in convincing a court that Grindr's app is, in effect, faulty in a way that can be dangerous to consumers.

That, reports NBC News in a Jan. 5 article, is what Herrick's suit is trying to do. The legal theory behind that approach sidesteps a 1996 law, section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, that protects online platform providers from having to answer for the bad behavior of those who use those platforms. As EFF explains:

Section 230 encourages intermediaries to host a vast array of content, without having to worry about the devastating litigation costs they would incur if they could be sued for what their users says online. Without Section 230, intermediaries would likely limit who could use their service and censor more speech than ever before. Smaller platforms that could not afford to take these steps would cease to exist, meaning users would have fewer tools to communicate online.

In talking to the tech magazine Wired about the harassment he has endured, Herrick described a nightmare scenario of men unwittingly barraging him with unwanted messages and photos, as well as showing up in person at his home and the restaurant where he's employed — more than a dozen per day, sometimes. Herrick claims that he has attempted time and again — more than 50 times by his count — to contact Grinder about the problem and never gotten anything but an automated message in reply. He's also gone to the police, who, Harrick told Wired, have suggested that he move — a decidedly low-tech, and quite possibly ineffectual, solution to a high-tech problem.

Herrick's response? As he told Wired, "Why doesn't Grindr do its job?" Or, as his suit alleges: "Grindr's inaction enables the weaponization of its products and services."

The court was scheduled to hear the case on Jan. 7. A ruling could be forthcoming in the next few months and, as the NBC article suggested, after a string of high-profile abuses of online platforms such as attempts to manipulate recent elections, the courts could be much more sympathetic to Herrick this time around.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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