Social Networks Shielded from Liability for Sexual Assaults
By Debbie Rosenbaum – Edited By Amanda Rice
Julie Doe II et al. v. MySpace Inc., Case No. B205643, (Cal. Ct. App. June 30, 2009)
On June 30, the Second District Court of Appeals in Los Angeles affirmed the judgment of the lower court and held that online social networks and other websites cannot be held liable for a sexual assault on a minor that stems from an online meeting. The court rejected claims made by the parents of four girls who were between thirteen and fifteen years old when they created MySpace profiles. The court followed Fifth Circuit precedent, Doe I v. Myspace, which JOLT Digest’s Anna Volftsun previously summarized in May 2008.
The Court of Appeals held that girls who are sexually assaulted by men they first contact on MySpace cannot seek damages from the social-networking website, which is protected from liability by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. “[T]hey want MySpace to ensure that sexual predators do not gain access to (i.e., communicate with) minors on its Web site. That type of activity-to restrict or make available certain material-is expressly covered by section 230,” wrote the court.
Ars Technica provides an overview of the case. CNET and Reuters also summarize the main points of the case. Eric Goldman offers a nice in-depth analysis of the case and emphasizes the defense’s use of Roomates.com precedent.
The plaintiffs, four underage girls (referred to as Julie Does) and their parents, sued MySpace for gross negligence and strict product liability after they were sexually assaulted by older men whom they met through the website. The plaintiffs alleged that MySpace had failed to employ adequate age verification measures or keep profiles on a “private” setting.
Despite the unfortunate circumstances in which these events took place, the court found that MySpace was protected from liability by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 is the same law that has protected Craigslist from being held responsible for discriminatory housing ads and other websites from being held liable for defamatory content created by third parties. The court’s opinion distinguishes the Roommates.com case (hosted by EFF) (which held that requiring users to answer questions that encouraged violation of the Fair Housing Act was not protected by Section 230) by noting that the questions that MySpace asks its users are neither required nor themselves illegal.
This decision was welcomed by free speech advocates, and is particularly salient in light of the Lori Drew reversal, covered by Flash Digest here, which limited a plaintiff’s right to seek relief for real life harm caused from online actions.