MySpace Sued for Facilitating Offline Sexual Assaults [Repost from Concurring Opinions’ Archive]

[In 2007, I guest-blogged at the group law professor blog Concurring Opinions. With the demise of that blog, I am now archiving my guest posts on my own blog. This post first appeared on January 18, 2007.]

AP reports that four families have sued MySpace because their daughters were sexually assaulted (offline) by other MySpace members. This isn’t the first time MySpace has been sued on this front; last year, MySpace was sued in Texas state court for the same issue in Doe v. MySpace.

These lawsuits are obvious losers for two independent reasons. First, there’s a major causation problem. Can MySpace be deemed, as a legal matter, a contributing factor to an intentional tort committed outside its “four walls”? This strikes me as a major stretch of causation doctrines.

Even if you don’t buy that, then I’m 100% confident these attempts to hold MySpace liable for other people’s behavior will fail due to 47 USC 230. 47 USC 230 has routinely insulated websites for liability for torts committed outside their network. This was the central issue in the Fourth Circuit’s seminal Zeran v. AOL case, 129 F.3d 327 (4th Cir. Nov. 12, 1997), where the court insulated AOL for the offline harassment sparked by online postings. For other examples of websites avoiding liability for offline conduct, see, e.g., Doe v. America Online, 783 So. 2d 1010 (Fla. 2001) (AOL not liable to harmed child for child porn generated off AOL and distributed through it); Doe v. Bates, 2006 WL 3813758 (E.D. Tex. Dec. 27, 2006) (same basic case as Doe v. AOL); Prickett v. infoUSA, Inc., 2006 WL 887431 (E.D. Tex. Mar. 30, 2006) (information republisher not liable for offline harassing behavior made using published data); Barnes v. Yahoo, Inc., 2005 WL 3005602 (D. Or. Nov. 7, 2005) (Yahoo not liable for offline harassments made in response to bogus profile submitted by angry ex-boyfriend).

Given the obviously futile nature of this lawsuit, this lawsuit may be more about publicity than about seeking justice. Despite this, these lawsuits may nevertheless exacerbate two trends, both of which are not necessarily positive.

First, legislators cannot resist the meme of protecting kids online, and this lawsuit will give legislators another incentive to think that they should regulate social networking sites to protect kids. See, for example, Sen. McCain’s proposed “Stop the Online Exploitation of Our Children Act.” (How could anyone ever oppose a law with a title like that???) However, such regulations run into difficult definitional issues (what is a “social networking site”?) and, if poorly drafted (as Congress tends to do with Internet regulation), could jeopardize lots of legitimate activities and conversations.

Second, this lawsuit will also encourage Congress to target sexual offenders for further restrictions of their online behavior, like McCain’s Stop the Online Exploitation of Our Children Act and like the proposed federal sex offender email registry as a way to blacklist them online (see a similar effort in Virginia). Sexual offenders have become the new pariah in our society–they are a tiny percent of the population and, based on the nature of their offenses, shunned by majority interests (indeed, it is politically incorrect to do anything but shun them). As a result, there is no meaningful counterbalance to any majority-led political efforts to strip them of rights. To the extent that depriving them of rights online could improve the safety of children, I’m all for it. However, I have yet to see any social science explaining what online restrictions of sexual offender behavior actually supports this goal. Without any scientific support, regulatory efforts are typically more about grandstanding by attacking unpopular minorities than about improving our safety.

I want to be clear–I worry a lot about how I can protect my children online, and I haven’t figured out how to best do that. This kind of stuff keeps me up at nights because of my heavy responsibilities as a parent. At the same time, I remain concerned that legal intervention to supplement my efforts will not help me execute my duties as a parent, but they will nevertheless come at a significant cost by curtailing otherwise robust and socially enriching communication environments.