MySpace not responsible for assault on minors: US court

July 2, 2009

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.


In India, killing the corner shop

October 10, 2007

When in India, if you have forgotten to pack toothpaste, or you have run out of cigarettes, you can just step out, and buy it from a small shop, around the corner. The store is usually open past 10:30 pm in the night, and if the person running the store does not have what you want, he will offer to deliver it to you.

The landscape of India’s cities and small towns are dotted by these small shops, most of them pop-and-mom outfits. They are very personalized operations that know you and your family, and may even let you pay the next day if you are short of cash, or in a hurry. They are also places for the people of the neighborhood to congregate for an evening chat.

Now these retailers feel threatened that they could be driven out of business by Western style super markets like Wal-Mart, Carrefour and Tesco who have an eye on the Indian market.

So far the Indian government has kept the foreign retail chains out of the market, by blocking foreign retail giants out of India, but local retailers already face competition from recent forays into large-scale retail business by big Indian groups like Reliance of Mumbai, which is setting up a chain of Reliance Retail stores, across the country, ahead of foreign competition.

More than 20,000 traders, farmers and shopkeepers protested on Wednesday against the entry of private retail giants like Wal-Mart into India which they say would destroy millions of livelihoods, according to a report from Reuters.

Retailers are large vote banks. Reliance too would perhaps want to delay the entry of foreign retailers until after they have their act together, and the business house has strong connections with the Indian government.

In the long-term though, the Indian market will not be able to resist the entry of multinational retail chains. What will that do to the traditional retailer ?

It seems that the corner shops will still have their traditional customer base. Folks will not drive some miles to a supermarket, and stand in serpentine queues to buy a tube of toothpaste or a pack of biscuits. Besides corner shops offer relationships that the large supermarkets do not. It is true that large supermarkets will offer loyalty cards and coupons and a variety of schemes, but that in itself will not remove the sheer convenience of the corner store.

The large multinational retail chains may however squeeze out the small retailer by a stronger control over the supply chain. Because of the volumes they will purchase, they will be able to offer the best produce from the farmers, cut off intermediaries, and generally make sure the best merchandise at the best price comes to their chain of stores. That would mean that people are more likely to do their volume purchasing at the supermarkets, to take advantage of the discounts.

Will there be enough of daily business still left over for small retailers ?

It is too early to sing an ode to the corner retail store. But the day these shops roll down shutters will be a very sad day indeed not only for the retailer but for his customers. It will be the end of a timeless tradition in the country, that served well both the retailer and the consumer.