Doe v. GTE Corp

Doe v. GTE Corp. , 347 F.3d 655 (7th Cir. 2003)

Unbeknownst to the football players at Illinois State University, the wrestlers at Nothwestern University, and the varsity athletes from several other universities, someone secretly installed video cameras in their locker-rooms, bathrooms, and shower areas. Tapes of naked players were compiled and distributed by various voyeurism companies (all of which had bogus names concealing the identity of the individuals behind the tapes). GTE (the defendant, an internet service provider) provided web hosting services to sites such as “youngstuds.com” at which the hidden-camera videos were offered for sale.

Procedural Posture
The students filed suit against the companies that offered the tapes for sale, various college officials who failed to detect the cameras, and three corporations who provide web hosting services to the sellers. The sellers defaulted or could not be located, the college officials prevailed on qualified immunity grounds, and the only remaining defendants were the interest service providers who provided web hosting services to the sellers. The district court dismissed all claims against the internet service providers. Plaintiffs appealed to the 7th Circuit.

Is an internet service provider liable for aiding and abetting an entity responsible for the illegal distribution of voyeurism videos on one of the websites that the provider hosts?

No. The Court rejected a secondary liability argument under 18 U.S.C. §2511. According to the Court, §2511 only creates liability for those individuals who directly perpetrated the act. The judgment of the district court was affirmed.

18 U.S.C. §2511 provides that “any person who-(a) intentionally intercepts, endeavors to intercept, or procures any other person to intercept or endeavor to intercept, any wire, oral, or electronic communication” faces civil liability. The voyeurism companies intercepted oral communications and were probably liable under §2511. However, nothing in the statute condemns “assistants,” as opposed to those who directed perpetrate the act. GTE did not intercept any communication, and did not willfully disseminate any illegally-obtained communications. Furthermore, GTE was acting as a neutral web host and “intermediary.” Internet service providers are not required to investigate their clients’ activities.

Questions Left Unanswered
Judge Easterbrook left open the question of whether an ISP could be liable for violating §2511 if a claimant informed the ISP of the unlawful content of the website and the ISP did not prohibit access to the website or take down the unlawful content.

Jessica L. Cook
April 22, 2010

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