MySpace Sued for Sexual Assaults

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 <

8 thoughts on “MySpace Sued for Sexual Assaults”

  1. I agree that MySpace has no legal obligation for the safety of its teenage users in this case because its job is solely to provide an interactive forum where these teenagers can express themselves freely. One thing that MySpace may be held liable of is the use of profane language, which could potentially cause emotionally distress. However, that is irrelevant to this case.
    My argument is that MySpace did not force the teenagers to use this tool to communicate with strangers, let along meeting them in person outside of the online forum; it simply provides the service. And after that, it is the teenagers’ decisions on how to use what is provided to them and take responsibilities for their actions. If a teenager hurts someone with a kitchen knife, can you blame the parents for the misusage of the cutlery?
    MySpace will soon provide parents with Internet-regulation tools, which allow them to monitor their children’s private activities. However, wouldn’t that take away those teenagers’ right to privacy? Even before we consider the constitutional rights, these regulatory moves will not prevent the teenagers from communicating with strangers (for instance, they could always meet the strangers on another online forum) or protect them from harm.
    This case is similar to the Ozzy Osbourne case we discussed. Who is responsible when the emotionally unstable teenager commits suicide after listening to Osbourne’s “encouraging” music? Is this action so foreseeable? If Osbourne intended to encourage these teenagers to end their own lives, what can he benefit from it? In other words, is there a reason for him to write this suicidal music other than to express himself and to make money from it? There is a possibility, but probably not. He would certainly lose business if all of his teenage listeners took that message the same way young McCollum did. And if that is the case, he is certainly protected by the First Amendment, Freedom of Expression.
    Whether to use a tool or service that you have been provided with is a choice of your own. If the law holds all of the service providers responsible for actions beyond their intent or knowledge, imagine how dull the world will become.

  2. I think the parents’ suits have more merit than you give them credit for. Again, without knowing the facts of the suit, MySpace’s liability will hinge on the forseeability of these attacks and predatory advances taking place. Unlike a public message board, the documented instances of online predatory activity is well noted and publicized.

    Further, MySpace could conform with its duty of care fairly simply by verifying that its members actually are the ages they claim to be. Given the low burden of such routine maintenance, the the heightended forseeability of severity of predatory activity online, dismissing these suits as frivolous is highly premature.

  3. Underage children have been assaulted before when using chat rooms and AIM. So does that mean MySpace should have foreseen this happening and placed restrictions against it? Is there a precedent from it in previous cases settled for AIM/chatrooms with minors being assaulted?

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