Two recent federal court actions are signs of growing recognition in US society that social-networking sites are not the cause of behavior in them which sometimes leads to tragic results. They’re just another “place” where the behavior occurs. Where the confusion lies is in the role that the social Web does play. It can have the effect of amplifying and perpetuating the impact of content and speech on it, so responsible social-networking companies (and mobile carriers, virtual worlds, multiplayer games and communities) have the responsibility to help mitigate that behavior by 1) educating the public at the preventive end and 2) supporting parents, schools, and law enforcement at the remedial end, after things happen.
In the first case, existing law is being unprecedentedly applied in a way that puts the public focus on sites’ terms of service as, basically, a set of user safety regs that need to be observed by all as a protection to all. In the second case, the decision by a federal appeals court to reaffirm a law that puts social-networking sites in the same category as telephone companies, as communication pipelines or venues, reaffirms the concept that on Web sites, too, people, not so much the places where people interact, are accountable for people’s interactions. Given the age of the child involved, this case too puts the spotlight on site terms of service. Here are the cases:
1. Indictment in Megan Meier case
Lori Drew, the mother who allegedly helped create a fictitious MySpace profile that led to 13-year-old Megan Meier’s suicide has been indicted. She has been “charged with conspiracy and fraudulently gaining access to someone else’s computer” by a federal grand jury. Drew and some of Megan’s peers had set up the profile of a fictitious 16-year-old boy and, through it, developed a relationship between the “boy” and Megan, who her family said had been treated for attention deficit disorder and depression. The profile’s creators carried on the “relationship” for months, then faked the “boy’s” breakup with Megan, leading to her suicide. Investigators in Missouri, where all this occurred, couldn’t find a state law to apply to the case. Later, “federal prosecutors in Los Angeles launched a grand jury investigation … to determine whether Ms. Drew or others defrauded Beverly Hills-based MySpace by providing false information to the site,” the Associated Press reports, describing an unprecedented way of applying the law (“both Megan and MySpace are named as victims in the case, US Attorney Thomas O’Brien” told the AP).
This is a case and an approach to watch going forward, because in effect it adds “teeth” to social-networking sites’ terms of service, which both parents and teens need to be aware of and which sites need to enforce. [Earlier coverage: “Extreme cyberbullying: US case comes to light” and “Missouri cyberbullying: Case not closed.”]
2. Court rejects family’s suit against MySpace
A federal appeals court upheld the dismissal of a Texas family’s $30 million sexual-assault case against MySpace. The court ruled that the Communications Decency Act of 1996 “bars such lawsuits against Web-based services like MySpace,” the Associated Press reports. The case was dismissed by a federal court in Austin last year (see this item). The girl had created a profile on MySpace when she was below the site’s minimum age of 14 but characterized herself as 18 and – after meeting a 19-year-old man who apparently got her phone number by claiming he was a high school football player – said she was assaulted by him after she went out on a date with him in 2006 (my original item on this was “Teen sues MySpace”).