Is MySpace legally responsible for sexual assaults committed against teens who met their assailants on the site? Four lawsuits filed in Los Angeles Superior Court this week (see, e.g. here, here, and here ) seek damages from MySpace for negligence, recklessness, fraud, and negligent misrepresentation in connection with sexual assaults on the plaintiffs. The suits were brought on behalf of five 14- and 15-year old girls from four families in Texas, Pennsylvania, New York, and South Carolina MySpace was also sued last year in Texas in connection with a sexual assault on a 14-year old girl who met her 19-year old attacker online. The adults implicated in each of the four assaults have either been charged or convicted of the crimes. A lawyer from one of plaintiffs’ firms stated that “MySpace waited entirely too long to attempt to institute meaningful security measures that effectively increase the safety of their underage users.” MySpace has taken steps to limit adults from contacting younger users and to educate users about the risks of sharing information. This week MySpace announced a to-be released tool allowing parents to see some of their children’s online profile.
I understand the parents’ helplessness in the face of the damage inflicted upon their children. We try as parents to keep the world’s evil at bay yet sometimes it arrives, and we rage against it and against our impotence to stop it. Bystanders too-simply blame the victim (“dont (sic) they have an (sic) ‘Complete Moron’ clause somewhere that says idiots cant (sic) sue for being terminally stupid”*) and the parents “a Double WTF to the parents for not at least having the meeting supervised.*” I know nothing about the particulars of these cases and whether the parents should be faulted for failing to supervise their children. I know that as a teenager I sometimes did the precise opposite of what I should do, just because it was the opposite of what I should do. As a parent I know that sometimes you try your human best and still fail.
I do not, however, agree with these lawsuits, based as they are on a profound misconception of the nature of MySpace and similar sites. MySpace provides a cyber place for people to meet and interact. It should have no more legal responsibility than the owner of a village-square bulletin board for a relationship established via Post-It messages, or than the owner of a bar for a relationship formed by two people at last call, or than the owner of the local mall for a relationship between a 14-year girl and a 20-year old man who meet while hanging around outside The Gap. MySpace is not the junior high gymnasium on 8th-grade dance night. It should not be MySpace’s responsibility to tell parents who their children hang with or what their children do. Cyber spaces allow one to put on a false face. This has not been news since The New Yorker ran the “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” cartoon in July 1993.
When bad things happen, we want someone to pay–as compensation, as punishment, as vindication, as justice. The law should not always provide a remedy. Coincidentally, yesterday we discussed McCollum v CBS, 202 Cal. App. 3d 989, 249 Cal. Rptr. 187 (1988), a negligence suit brought unsuccessfully by parents of a teenage boy who committed suicide after listening repeatedly to Ozzy Osbourne’s music, including a song titled “Suicide Solution.” The court ruled that John McCollum’s suicide was not a reasonably foreseeable consequence of Osbourne’s artistry. (It also ruled that the First Amendment barred plaintiff’s recovery.) The need to find answers and fix blame can, I imagine, be overwhelming when one’s children are harmed, especially if there are powerful external influences (rock music, MySpace) at work. We blame what we don’t understand. It’s more comforting than blaming the face in the mirror, or considering the possibility that there may be no one to blame.
*Quotations from Slashdot <