The Supreme Judicial Court today upheld Massport's right to block an online company from arranging rental-car pickups and drop offs at Logan Airport terminals, in a ruling that hinged on a federal law intended to protect online forums from libel actions.
Turo, which has a platform on which vehicle owners can rent out their cars to visitors, fought Massport - which requires rental companies to provide shuttle buses to parking lots away from the terminals - largely on the basis of Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act, which protects Internet platforms from lawsuits involving postings by third parties in their forums.
The company alleged that it was car owners and prospective renters who were doing all the talking on its platform, which means they're third parties and which means if Turo doesn't tell them they can't arrange pickups and drop offs at terminals, there's nothing Massport can do.
Nope, the state's highest court ruled today.
There is no dispute that Turo is a provider of an interactive computer service within the meaning of [a key part of] the immunity provision of the CDA. Therefore, Turo is entitled to immunity if Massport's claims necessarily require that Turo be treated as the publisher or speaker of content provided by others. Because Massport's claims are not predicated on third-party content, and because they do not seek to treat Turo as the publisher or speaker of its hosts' content, we hold that Turo is not entitled to immunity [under the law].
The court explained that Massport lawyers went after Turo's own text on its Web site, not any postings by people with cars for hire. Referring to a similar ruling by a Suffolk Superior Court judge, the justices wrote:
The judge determined, and we agree, that Turo's immunity claims fail as [part of Section 230] because Massport's claims against Turo regard the portion of the content on Turo's website advertising Logan Airport as a desirable pick-up or drop-off location, which was created by Turo itself. As indicated, in pages of its own on its website, Turo offers travelers three options for pick-up and drop-off locations that expressly reference airport pickup and drop off: "Owners deliver to nearby airports";"Airport pickup [is] available - Skip the rental counter"; and a dedicated search button for vehicles specifically available at Logan Airport.
Indeed, Turo's own content encouraging the use of Logan Airport as a desirable pick-up or drop-off location for its users is exactly the content Massport asserts is the basis for the claim of aiding and abetting. ...
[R]ather than seeking to hold Turo liable as the publisher or speaker for its users' content, Massport's claims sought to hold Turo liable for its own role in facilitating the online car rental transactions that resulted in its customers' continuing trespass. The record supports the judge's conclusion.
The ruling also noted:
Turo promotes both that it has more than 200 motor vehicles available to rent from Logan Airport and that its guests are able to meet their hosts at Logan Airport. Indeed, this is one of the conveniences Turo touts as a distinct advantage it offers to travelers over traditional car rental agencies.
The court said it found considerable guidance and precedence in a federal decision involving a suit the actual Airbnb filed against Boston over city attempts to regulate short-term rentals in 2019, in which Airbnb cited similar online speech protections. But it also lost.
The court held that the monetary fines imposed by the city were "aimed at regulating Airbnb's own conduct, and not at punishing it for content provided by a third party," and thus §230 immunity did not apply. ... The court went on to explain that "[t]he fine is neither expressly tied to the content of the underlying listing, nor explicitly aimed at penalizing the manner in which Airbnb has structured its booking and payment services. It is triggered based on Airbnb's own conduct as a participant in the rental transaction. ..." The claim was not directed at Airbnb's acts as a publisher of third-party rental listings, but rather at Airbnb's role "as an agent that books rental agreements between users and hosts and collects and distributes payments when such a deal is made." Thus, the court concluded, the monetary fines "reache[d] Airbnb in its capacity as a booking agent and payment processor," and "impose[d] no liability, nor require[d] any action, that necessarily [arose] from Airbnb's publication of content provided by another. "
Here, as in the Airbnb case, the record reflects that Turo serves a dual role as both the publisher of its users' third-party listings and the facilitator of the rental transactions themselves, and in particular the rental transactions that occur on Massport's Logan Airport property. Rather than focusing on what Turo allows its hosts to publish in their listings, Massport's claims pointedly focus on Turo's role as the facilitator of the ensuing rental transaction sat Logan Airport, which is far more than just offering a website to serve as a go-between among those seeking to rent their vehicles and those seeking rental vehicles. Indeed, as the judge observed, in addition to allowing hosts to list their vehicles for rent, Turo also provides substantial ancillary services to its hosts, such as collecting and remitting payments, offering (and mandating) liability insurance and roadside assistance that is available twenty-four hours per day and seven days per week, and screening guests before permitting them to rent a motor vehicle from a host.