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Chicago-Google Inc., Amazon.com Inc., AOL and Yahoo! Inc. are helping defend online peer Craigslist Inc. against a lawsuit that would hold the Web site liable for discriminatory housing ads that appeared on its site. The online companies last week filed an amicus brief in the U.S. district court case in Chicago, saying a ruling against Craigslist could have “extremely negative implications” for the growth of online services. The brief was also signed by eBay Inc., which owns 25% of Craigslist, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, among others. Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law Inc. v. Craigslist Inc., No. 06C-0657 (N.D. Ill.). “Most of these companies/organizations have as much (or more) at stake in this matter than we do,” Jim Buckmaster, the chief executive officer of Craigslist, said in e-mailed comment. The lawsuit against Craigslist, before District Judge Amy St. Eve, was filed in February by the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a consortium of firms providing pro bono services, including some for fair housing. The group includes Chicago firms Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw; Kirkland & Ellis; and Jenner & Block. The committee argues that Craigslist has violated the Fair Housing Act by letting its users post ads in which they discriminate in seeking tenants, asking, for instance, for a “gay Latino” or a “clean, godly Christian male.” The lawsuit cites about 120 ads from July to October 2005. Craigslist has defended itself with the 1996 Communications Decency Act, saying that Congress created the law to give Internet service providers immunity from such liability for postings by users, and that courts have upheld that protection. While the case isn’t scheduled to be heard by St. Eve until August, the committee’s lawyer said that he expects the case will ultimately be decided by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Meanwhile, a similar case in California against Roommate.com is on appeal to the 9th Circuit, setting up the possibility of two new rulings related to online housing ads. “It’s reasonably likely that at this time next year the 7th and the 9th circuits will have said something about this,” said Stephen Libowsky, a Howrey lawyer in Chicago who is leading the pro bono case for the committee. “It’s very important for everyone to know where the 7th Circuit stands on the issue.” Samuel Fifer, a lawyer at Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal in Chicago who represents the companies that filed the amicus brief, likened the law’s protection for Internet companies to the laws that protect phone companies from liability for information passed on their wires.

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