Court: Don't blame MySpace for offline sexual assault

When a 14-year-old girl was assaulted by a man she met on the social network, her mother filed suit against MySpace. No can do, an appeals court ruled--especially since the girl had deliberately circumvented safety regulations.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
3 min read

MySpace can breathe a little easier. A federal appeals court ruled last week that the News Corp.-owned social network can't be held responsible for the sexual assault of an Austin, Texas, teen by a man she met on the site.

The girl, named in the case as Julie Doe, initially filed suit along with her mother, named as Jane Doe, after she was sexually assaulted in May 2006 by 19-year-old Pete Solis, whom she met on MySpace. The lawsuit, filed in a Texas state court, targeted MySpace, parent company News Corp., and Solis. Among the allegations against MySpace were fraud, negligence, gross negligence, and negligent misrepresentation, and the Does claimed MySpace should have had technology in place to make it impossible for someone as young as Julie to create a profile in the first place.

But on Friday, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Does can't target MySpace in the case, which had already been dismissed once before. "Parties complaining that they were harmed by a Web site's publication of user-generated content...may sue the third-party user who generated the content," Judge Edith Clement Brown asserted in the ruling, "but not the interactive computer service that enabled them to publish the content online.

It would have been Julie Doe's parents' job to protect her, not MySpace's, the court decided.

The Does' case might have been able to stay afloat if the assault in question had stemmed from actual harassment on MySpace rather than a real-life assault instigated by correspondence on the site. Had Julie Doe been harassed online and reported Solis' profile to MySpace, only to receive an inadequate or slow response, it'd be a very different story.

That's something that MySpace rival Facebook ran into when New York legal authorities conducted an investigation to see how the site responded to claims of harassment. Claiming that Facebook was slow to action, the office of N.Y. Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo subpoenaed the social-networking site before the two eventually reached an accord.

It also probably didn't help the plaintiffs' side in Doe vs. MySpace that Doe had lied about her age to join the site, claiming she was 18 when she created a profile in 2005, despite the fact that she was actually 13. MySpace's safety regulations bar children younger than 14 from using the site, and profiles of members under 16 cannot be viewed publicly.

Court documents from the February 1, 2007, hearing before the district court show that the legal authorities saw holes in the Does' case early on: "You have a 13-year-old girl who lies, disobeys all of the instructions, later on disobeys the warning not to give personal information, obviously, (and) does not communicate with the parent. More important, the parent does not exercise the parental control over the minor. The minor gets sexually abused, and you want somebody else to pay for it?"

Section 230 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act has historically protected Internet service providers and other online communications services, like social-networking sites, from the legal issues that may arise from activity on them. In recent years, courts have increasingly found ways through the implied "immunity." Matchmaking site Roommates.com, for example, couldn't hide behind Section 230 when an appeals court decided it was violating a housing discrimination act by allowing members to filter through potential roommates by criteria like sexual orientation.

But in this case, it really doesn't look like MySpace can be held responsible. Tech-law blogger Eric Goldman agreed with the court in a blog post Monday, writing that "even though the 5th Circuit clearly got it right, and the plaintiffs never should have been brought this lawsuit against MySpace, I remain flummoxed by the number of cases I'm seeing involving teens making poor (and, in some cases, life-altering) decisions using MySpace."

In January, MySpace announced that it was working with the attorneys general of 49 states--the exception, a bit ironically, is Texas--to develop an an arsenal of safety tools on the site. Age verification technology is among the priorities, the social network has said.