Social Networking

Texas Court Dismisses MySpace Sexual Assault Case

A Texas judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by the family of a 13-year-old girl who allegedly was assaulted by a man she met through the social networking Web site MySpace.

Part of the case was dismissed with prejudice, a decision that will likely be appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court, according to one of the plaintiff’s attorneys, Adam Loewy, a partner with Barry & Loewy. “Our claims involving fraud were dismissed without prejudice and we will proceed with those,” he told TechNewsWorld.

More Litigation Ahead?

The suit stems from allegations that a 19-year-old man who had lied about his age attacked the 13-year-old girl. Local authorities have charged him with sexual assault.

The girl’s parents subsequently sued News Corp. for US$30 million on the grounds that the company does not do enough to protect members from predators and fraudsters. They were joined by other families who reported the same type of experiences.

Four similar cases against MySpace are now pending in the Los Angeles County Superior Court, and Loewy said he expects to file another five suits there in the near future.

In addition to monetary damages, the plaintiffs are requesting that MySpace implement better security measures to ensure members’ safety, noted Loewy.

Age Requirements and Other Measures

In MySpace’s defense, the company had a 14-year-old minimum age requirement in place when the incident is said to have occurred, and it required members under the age of 18 to review safety tips prior to registration.

After the first wave of lawsuits were filed last year, MySpace appointed Microsoft veteran and former Justice Department trial attorney Hemanshu Nigam to oversee safety, education and privacy programs, as well as law enforcement affairs.

These measures have been criticized as insufficient, as the Web site still allows users to post photos, telephone numbers and IM (instant messaging) handles, all of which provide a virtual road map to potential victims. Also, there is no verification of a registrant’s age.

To address growing concerns, several members of Congress have introduced legislation to implement safety measures to protect children on the Internet, including blocking access to social networking sites such as MySpace and other interactive services at schools and libraries that receive federal funding.

Backlash Brewing

A backlash against these measures is forming, however, with opponents arguing that they are overreaching and would not offer any more protection than is already provided in the Child Online Protection Act. Parents should be the first line of defense by monitoring their children’s activities online, they maintain.

“It’s the baby in the bathwater clich,” Robert Butterworth, a Los Angeles-based clinical psychologist with International Trauma Associates, told TechNewsWorld. “These networks can connect people that have similar needs and interests, and help others not feel so alone.”

Indeed, more than half — 55 percent — of all online American youths between the ages of 12 and 17 use social networking sites, according to a recent national survey of teenagers conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

“Like everything else, when new technology comes along, people tend to freak out at the first problem and say ‘let’s get rid of it,'” Butterworth remarked.

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