It was someone's responsibility to keep a 13-year-old girl from lying about her age on MySpace and meeting a 19-year-old man who allegedly sexually assaulted her in a Texas parking lot. But according to a judge's pivotal ruling on Wednesday, it wasn't MySpace's.
According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, the ruling by Judge Sam Sparks in the U.S. District Court in Austin, Texas, appears to be the first time a federal court has extended the same broad free-speech protection rights granted to Internet service providers to a social-networking site.
"If anyone had a duty to protect Julie Doe," Sparks wrote of the unnamed alleged victim, "It was her parents, not MySpace." Sparks' ruling dismissed the case, adding that MySpace couldn't be held liable for the actions of its users any more than Yahoo! was responsible for what people write on its message boards, and that the most popular social-networking site shouldn't be punished for the failure of its voluntary safety measures. If you punish MySpace for that, he said, Internet firms would stop taking such steps to protect users.
The ruling stemmed from a case in which a 19-year-old man was charged with sexual assault last summer in connection with the Doe case. The girl's parents sued MySpace parent company News Corp. for $30 million, saying the site didn't do enough to protect its members; at least four similar cases are pending (see "Teen Sues MySpace For $30 Million Over Sexual Assault Claim"). According to court documents, the girl listed her age as 18 when she joined MySpace, and at the time she was 14 exchanged e-mails and phone calls with college freshman Pete Solis, who allegedly sexually assaulted her in a parking lot after the two had gone to dinner and a movie.
"A lot of people are angry about what kids are doing and what's happening on the Internet," Parry Aftab, a leading Internet child-safety expert told the Times. "That's fine. But it is not MySpace's role to raise your child."
Since acquiring MySpace in July 2005, News Corp. has instituted a series of security measures to fight the image of a place where unsavory characters lurk around, including the hiring of a chief safety officer, public-service announcements on the site and TV that warn children to be cautious of strangers online as well as the recent roll-out of parental control software and restrictions on interactions between adults and teens (see "MySpace Restricting Adults' Access To Teen Users").
"We applaud the judge's decision to dismiss the plaintiffs' claims of negligence, fraud and misrepresentation against MySpace," a spokesperson for the site said in a statement to MTV News. "This decision reaffirms that under federal law Internet sites like MySpace cannot be held liable for content posted by, or wrongdoing committed by, individuals who visit our site. MySpace has always been concerned about what happened to Julie Doe because we take the safety and security of our community very seriously. However, a lawsuit against MySpace was not the appropriate way to redress any harm to her."
Sparks relied on the 1996 Communications Decency Act in reaching his verdict, applying Congress' assertion that Internet service providers should not be held liable for content posted on their sites by third parties. An expert told the Times that since the passage of the 1996 Act, courts have interpreted the immunity from prosecution for ISPs pretty broadly, realizing that if ISPs become responsible for the editorial content of anyone who participates in an online chat, it would be virtually impossible to host a site.