Internet servers like MySpace cannot be held liable when minors are sexually assaulted by people they first meet on a website, a California appeals court ruled in an opinion filed late on Tuesday, according to this report from Reuters.
The court seems to be saying, to use a metaphor from physical life, that if I rent a house to a person who commits a crime against a minor, or to a person who initiates a crime on those premises, I cannot be held liable.
I think that is reasonable from a purely legalistic standpoint, except in cases where a landlord is found to be actively abetting or aiding or profiting from the crime or its initiation.
But what if the landlord in this case saw the tenant lead an unknown minor girl to the house ? Should he just ignore it, as he is not legally liable, or should he just ask around, or drop in on his tenant just to show he is watching ? How much effort is good enough ?
Please note: this is no longer a point of law, but a matter of conscience.
To be sure, the landlord can try to smoothen out his ethical discomfort by blaming the parents who allowed the minor child out with the stranger in the first place, or by blaming parents who do not keep enough checks on the whereabouts of the children.
Or he may worry about intruding on the privacy of the tenant.
The landlord is within the law, but is his conscience clear ? If a crime does happen in his premises, he is not legally liable, but is his conscience clear, unless he puts in his best efforts to check what is going on ?
Social networks can’t be hauled to court for a crime committed or initiated by someone else on its premises, says the Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles.
“The idea is, you hold the speaker responsible not the soapbox,” Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) spokeswoman Rebecca Jeschke told Reuters.
The ruling, if adopted by other courts around the world, shifts the onus dramatically to citizens.
The public will have to be far more aggressive to get social networking sites to put in place security measures for minors, or prevent minors altogether.
Social networks are no longer liable for this role in a court of law, but they could be liable in a court of public opinion and action, liable for a failure of conscience.
Social networks can in certain circumstances be hauled before the court of public opinion and citizen action, made all the more easy on the Internet.
People with a conscience may, for example, decide to pull out of a social network because it does not protect minors enough, if its controls for preventing minors on its site are not strong enough.
Or people may decide to boycott products or services that are advertised on social networks that are found not to have a conscience.
To the other denizens of MySpace and other social networks; do we watch out for any signs of criminal activity and report it ? We are equally responsible as the people running the social network.