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I run a publicly editable website where users can post up stories a various sort. Some are pretty normal, some are sexual, some are a bit perverted, and recently some have drifted into the pedophilia realm.

No images or videos can be uploaded to this site.

Are there any laws that I might be breaking by hosting this content?

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Two questions, here:

  1. Can a text story be obscene under the law?
  2. As one who hosts a website, can you be held liable for the content of a site?

Can a text story be legally obscene

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit published their opinion on United States of America v. Frank Russell McCoy on March 12, 2015.

Mr. McCoy maintained a website, young-stuff.com, from his home. He authored or edited more than 200 graphic stories detailing "sexual abuse, rape, and torture of young children."

Mr. McCoy was indicted in June, 2007 and found guilty. The appeals court affirmed the conviction. Both the initial trial court and the appeals court found Mr. McCoy's stories "lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value."

Can a web site's host be held liable for the content of a site?

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act says that

No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

It also states that no internet entity has immunity from federal criminal law.

Section 230 has been found to apply to intermediaries of third-party content. Generally, most assume that when the content is simply hosted and not moderated by the web site then there is no liability for the provider.

That's not always the case and is determined by whether the host of the web site is considered a provider of interactive computer services or an information content provider.

Any person responsible "in whole or in part...for the creation or development of information" is an information content provider.

Which are you?

In Fair Housing Council of San Fernando Valley v. Roommates.com, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that roommates.com was not immune under Section 230 because they asked questions of their users that helped facilitate a potentially illegal search under the Fair Housing Act. They, therefore, helped create the content the site hosted.

The question will ultimately rest on whether someone decides the content is obscene enough to be prosecuted and then if you, the site's host, aided in creating the content.

This definitely requires the assistance of competent legal counsel.

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