Social Networking Sites and the Law

By Eric Goldman

On Monday, the High Tech Law Institute is co-sponsoring an event entitled “Friends, Lovers, Trust, Safety: The Present and Future of Social Networking.” The principal audience is undergraduate students, but everyone is welcome.

One of the hot cyberlaw topics du jour is the legal liability of YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, Friendster, etc. Unfortunately (?), this event won’t focus on the legal issues. However, as part of the event, I prepared a short primer for the undergraduates on Social Networking Sites and the Law. Two observations from my research supporting the primer:

1) As you’ll see from my primer, I found 3 reported cases involving nearly identical facts: 14 year old boy created a fake MySpace page for his school’s principal. There were yet other cases involving similar facts, and one can only assume that there are hundreds of unlitigated incidents for each reported case (see, e.g., this analogous situation).

I can understand how these fake websites happen. After all, I was a 14 year old boy myself (though that was a LONG time ago now) and I remember well the feeling of being imbued with the power of publication, though my publication reach was far narrower than MySpace now enables. However, it was a little breathtaking how common the “gag” appears to be. Hint to 14 year old boys: Fake MySpace pages for the principal are neither funny nor original. IT’S BEEN DONE…A LOT. (See my same observation about YouTube and Listerine).

2) There were a fair number of cases involving sexual predators on the social networking sites. Some of these cases we’ve heard about, but there were plenty more that were news to me. Once again, assuming there are hundreds of incidents for each reported case, I’m deeply troubled by the amount of sexual predation taking place via social networking sites. (If you want even more disturbing data of a high volume of sexual predation of kids, check out Teacher Smackdown). Regular readers know that I feel strongly that it’s ultimately the responsibility of parents to protect their children from online sexual predation, but I’ll confess that I don’t yet have a good plan for how I’m going to protect my own children.