MySpace lawsuit dismissal sends a message to media

In a case that has ramifications for all media in the digital space, a federal judge in Austin, TX has dismissed a $30 million lawsuit against MySpace over the sexual assault of a 14-year old girl. The girl, who listed her age as 18 on her MySpace profile, was first contacted by her assailant on the site. The suit charged MySpace with negligence, gross negligence, fraud and negligent misrepresentation.

The judge cited the Communications Decency Act of 1996 in dismissing the negligence and gross negligence charges, something we all need to consider. The CDA is increasingly providing safe haven for web businesses, because it protects them against messages people send to each other via a site. This includes comments on blogs, for example.

This is important, because liability is one of the key factors in broadcasting’s slow entry into the more vibrant, interactive paths of Media 2.0. What this ruling says, in part, is that MySpace should be given the same protection as any common carrier, such as a telephone company. If, for example, a sexual assault victim made contact with his or her assailant via telephone, the phone company would not be liable for damages in any case. Providing the vehicle for interaction does not automatically put that vehicle in our legal system’s bullseye.

But lawyers make their living in other people’s (deep) pockets, and case law is their drug of choice. Nobody knows that better than media companies, so I don’t blame anybody for being cautious. Judge Sam Sparks wrote, “If anyone had a duty to protect Julie Doe, it was her parents, not MySpace.” As a parent of children who use MySpace, I couldn’t agree with that more.

“This is allowing sites like MySpace to avoid the responsibility to make the Internet safe for children,” Jason Itkin, the lawyer in the case, said. “MySpace knows its Web site is a playground for sexual predators. Because of that, MySpace should be doing some very basic safety precautions.” This kind of inflammatory rhetoric is stock-in-trade and plays off fundamental fears that many people have about the wild west nature of the web. As I’ve written before, however, two-thirds of the users of MySpace keep their profiles “private,” which puts the “stalking” red herring into perspective.

The Wall Street Journal’s legal blog also points out that the head of security for MySpace, Hemanshu Nigam, is not the kind of guy who would take threats lightly.

Nigam joined MySpace after four years at Microsoft, where he was responsible for criminal compliance, security, and law enforcement affairs. Prior to joining Microsoft, the BU Law grad headed up the Motion Picture Association of America’s enforcement arm, and before that was a prosecutor for both the DOJ’s Criminal Division and the L.A. County DA’s Office.

The lawyer in the Austin case plans an appeal, and it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out. There are similar lawsuits against MySpace in California.

Proceed with caution, but do proceed.

(Here’s the ruling, thanks to Howard Bashman’s unique aggregator)

Comments

  1. thedetroitchannel says

    where’s the dif between the “common carrier” myspace and youtube?

  2. Troy Kinney says

    MySpace needs sued. A neighbor posted a pic of my 13 year old son. Listed his name and zip code and labeled him “gay and proud” and “horny as fuc#$”. I am on the fourth day of trying to get it removed. Myspace is only sent me an automated reply of any kind so far. And this is a clear violation of their terms. They do no policing, is all about the cash and to hell with the consequences.

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