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Court: MySpace not liable for offline assaults

Consistent with other federal rulings, court rules that a Web service can't be held responsible if a minor is assaulted offline by someone whom he or she meets online.

Social-networking sites and other Web services can't be held liable in a sexual assault on a minor that stemmed from a meeting online, according to a ruling in a California appeals court that consolidated a number of complaints against MySpace on behalf of teenage girls and their parents.

Reuters reported late on Wednesday that the Second District Court of Appeals in Los Angeles cited the Communications Decency Act in coming to the conclusion. Claiming negligence and product liability, the plaintiffs had alleged that MySpace had failed to put in place age verification software or to keep profiles on a "private" setting.

Other federal courts have come to similar rulings. Last year, a Texas court ruled that the family of a 14-year-old girl who was assaulted by a man she met on MySpace could not hold the social network responsible. The girl in question had lied about her age when she created a profile, claiming to be a legal adult, and the court ruled that it was her parents' job, not MySpace's, to keep her safe.

This week's ruling in Los Angeles received a thumbs-up from MySpace and parent company News Corp. It could also have repercussions across other social networks and community-based Web sites, which have been subject to scrutiny from authorities over both safety and decency standards. Craigslist, for example, has faced a crackdown on sex-related ads after both allegations of rampant prostitution and a high-profile case in which a Craigslist encounter allegedly ended in murder.

The situation can be different, if there is actual harassment conducted through the social network, rather than an offline assault. In that case, if it appears that a Web service isn't doing enough to keep members safe while using the site, it can, in some cases, be held responsible.

Facebook and MySpace are working with state attorneys general to keep registered sex offenders out of their user bases, following allegations from lawmakers that they weren't doing enough to maintain a safe environment for minors.

On Thursday, the sentencing is expected in another Los Angeles court for Lori Drew, who has been convicted of three misdemeanors after impersonating a teenage boy on MySpace and harassing a 13-year-old girl allegedly to the point of suicide.

Drew could be sentenced to up to three years in prison and forced to pay a fine of $300,000, a far lesser sentence than she originally faced.