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Web 2.0 not liable for real-world assaults, says court

Decency Act deflects MySpace suits

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Social networking sites like MySpace are not liable if underage users are sexually assaulted by people they meet on the website, a California appeals court has ruled.

The Second District Court of Appeals in Los Angeles found that MySpace is protected by the US Communications Decency Act from charges it allegedly "made a decision not to implement reasonable, basic safety precautions with regard to protecting young children from sexual predators."

The appellate case consolidated four separate lawsuits, each involving one or more "Julie Does" – girls aged 13 to 15 – who were sexually assaulted by men they met through MySpace. Through their parents or guardians, the Julie Does sued MySpace for negligence, claiming MySpace should have implemented "readily available and practicable age-verification software" and set their default security settings to "private."

MySpace membership is only open to users aged 14 and over. An underage user, however, can easily gain access by entering a false birth date. The website also automatically sets access to "private" for those aged 14 and 15, disabling others from searching for or browsing the accounts.

The four original cases were found to be legally insufficient based on the grounds that their claims were barred by Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act. Section 230 essentially states that providers of an interactive computer service are not liable for the information or content provided by third-party users - and is frequently invoked by website owners and in lawsuits over Web 2.0 liability. Section 230 also says the provider of an interactive computer service isn't liable for voluntary action "taken in good faith" to restrict or enable access to objectionable content.

The court did, however, grant the Julie Does a chance to amend their claims around section 230. The arguments were modified to say the "claim rests on MySpace's failure to institute reasonable measures to prevent older users from directly searching out, finding, and or communicating with minors. The claims are not content based."

Basically, the Julie Does argued that while MySpace isn't responsible for the communications between the victims and their assailants, it was responsible for not doing enough to prevent the assailants from contacting the victims in the first place. However, the court found the claims were still covered by section 230.

"They want MySpace to ensure that sexual predators do not gain access to (i.e., communicate with) minors on its Web site," the ruling states. "That type of activity -to restrict or make available certain material-is expressly covered by section 230."

The court continued that "it is undeniable" the plaintiffs still want to hold MySpace responsible for the communications between the Julie Does and their assailants, because at its core, they want MySpace to regulate what appears on its web site.

"The real question...is whether appellants seek to hold MySpace liable for failing to exercise a publisher's traditional editorial functions, namely deciding whether to publish certain material or not," the ruling stated. Because they do, section 230 immunizes MySpace from liability."

Web watchdog group the Electronic Frontier Foundation applauded the decision. EFF spokeswoman Rebecca Jeschke told Reuters the court opinion was important in light of recent demands by several states' attorney general to hold Craigslist responsible for alleged listings for prostitution.

"The idea is, you hold the speaker responsible not the soapbox," Jeschke said. "If you want any kind of social interaction on the Internet this is very important."

A copy of the ruling is available here (PDF) ®

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