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8 Out Of 11 Judges Agree: Roommates.com Is A Very Discriminating Service. Maybe Too Discriminating...

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In a decision that could have massive repercussions for Internet businesses who thrive by overcharging people for something they'll have better luck with on Craig's List, the 9th US Circuit Court has ruled that certain federal laws, specifically fair housing laws, do indeedapply to the internets:

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided Thursday that a website may be found liable for violating fair housing laws by matching roommates according to gender, sexual orientation and parenthood. ...

The judges said a site called Roommates.com may be brought to trial for possibly violating anti-discrimination laws because it requires users to provide information about gender, sexual orientation and whether they have children, and then uses the information to screen people for matches.

"A real estate broker may not inquire as to the race of a prospective buyer, and an employer may not inquire as to the religion of a prospective employee," Chief Judge Alex Kozinski wrote for the majority. "If such questions are unlawful when posed face-to-face by telephone, they don't magically become lawful when asked electronically online."

Never mind the fact that a sitting US Federal Judge sarcastically used the word "magically" in an official decision - no, wait, mind it. It must be stated for the record that "Magical" has now been established as official legal jargon. Just in time, we might add, for arguments in favor of forcing intelligent design in American schools. But we digress.

Meanwhile, there is some concern that this ruling could create a considerable amount of confusion as to the legal status of online businesses.

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The ruling dealt a major blow to the immunity shield that federal law has provided to nurture Internet expansion. Lawyers in the case said the trend in federal courts had been to protect websites from liability. The three judges who dissented called the ruling an "unprecedented expansion of liability" that could chill the Internet's growth. They said the decision was at odds with rulings by five other federal appeals courts and threatened protections for all interactive sites.

Only three weeks ago, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago rejected a similar fair housing challenge to classified advertising site Craigslist.

It's interesting that Craig's List was recently brought to court because here precisely, is what the nefarious web based villains actually did:
Site users are required to select from drop-down menus whether they want to live with "straight or gay" males, only with "straight" males, only with "gay" males or with "no males," the court said.

And this is where we grind to a screeching halt and wonder what in hell the Judges were thinking. While it's true that Realtors cannot and should not (we're looking right at you, Korea Town) discriminate based on gender, race or sexual orientation when deciding who should be allowed to sign a lease, it seems to this third person narrator that Roommates.com isn't about straight business transactions, it's about people filling vacant slots in their own homes. And indeed, a quick visit to the site confirms it:

Roommates.com is a roommate finder and roommate search service which covers thousands of cities nationwide.

Those of us who've lived into an insanely cheap apartment in a really convenient part of town know how difficult it is to extricate yourself from it. If you're lucky enough to have, say, a 2 bedroom apartment in Silverlake for 850 a month, chances are you're never moving out unless you're evicted. Which means, unless you're married, you're probably going to change roommates at least once or twice. Is the search for a new roommate a business transaction, or a personality decision similar to dating? Third Person narrators such as the one writing this post would probably say it's the latter. Unfortunately, the 9th Circuit Judges disagree:

Dating websites that require users to answer similar questions are not liable, the ruling said, because discrimination in choosing a partner is not illegal. "It is perfectly legal to discriminate along those lines in dating, and thus there can be no claim based solely on the content of these questions," the majority opinion said.

Doesn't it follow that the criteria one takes into account when selecting a nekkid bedtime pal are similar to those used to determine roommate compatibility? Why then shouldn't they be held to similar standards? How is it a violation of the fair housing act, for example, for a woman to prefer strictly female roommates?

Perhaps there are also class considerations in play here - The average judge is probably a home owner, and in all likelihood hasn't rented in years. They live with their families and for the most part, enjoy near complete living stability. Renting is alien territory to them. But as people are increasingly forced by extremely high real estate prices (and declining average income) to rent for longer and longer periods of time, the selection of who one chooses as a roommate becomes more and more a decision of who one will be spending a great deal of their lives with. While we would never support or encourage prejudice, we also would never live with bigots anyway. It would be a damn shame to move into a new apartment and discover to our horror that thanks to this ruling, your new roommate is a racist, sexist homophobe. Better to find that out before you sign the lease, no?

Final question: Craig's List (speaking of) is full of incredible steals, in great neighborhoods, that state quite explicitly they are available for female applicants only. What do LAisters think? Is this reasonable? Unfair? Do women have concerns that, perhaps, men don't, that might make roommate gender a more deeply pressing issue*? Sound off in comments.

*Spoiler: Yes.

Photo by Maproom Systems via Flikr.