MySpace immune from liability in suit over assault of minor

MySpace has successfully defended itself in a negligence suit arising from the assault of a minor girl by a 19-year-old man she met on the site. Invoking the immunity provisions of the Communications Decency Act at 47 U.S.C. §230, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas held that the suit must be dismissed, as the plaintiffs sought to hold MySpace liable as a publisher of third-party content.

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Julie Doe, the anonymous minor plaintiff, lied about her age (saying she was 18 when in fact she was only 13) when she signed up for a MySpace account. Later she met a 19-year-old man on the site, and the two started talking by telephone. They met-up in person, and Doe was assaulted.

Julie and her mother sued MySpace, claiming that it failed to take adequate precautions to protect Julie from the attack. MySpace raised 47 U.S.C. §230 as a defense in its motion to dismiss. That section provides, in relevant part, that “[n]o provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

As so many courts have done before, the court in this case adopted the rationale of the watershed Zeran v. America Online, Inc., 129 F.3d 327 (4th Cir. 1997). Zeran held that “[b]y its plain language, Section 230 creates a federal immunity to any cause of action that would make service providers liable for information originating with a third-party user of the service.”

The plaintiffs had asserted that their case was based not on MySpace’s posting of third-party content, but rather on MySpace’s failure to institute safety measures to protect minors. The court rejected this “disingenuous” argument:

It is quite obvious that the underlying basis of Plaintiffs’ claims is that, through posting on MySpace, [the assailant] and Julie Doe met and exchanged personal information which eventually led to an in-person meeting and the sexual assault of Julie Doe…. No matter how artfully Plaintiffs seek to plead their claims, the Court views Plaintiffs’ claims as directed toward MySpace in its publishing, editorial, and/or screening capacities.

The court found additional grounds to dismiss the negligence claim in that MySpace had no duty to prevent the assault from occurring. Citing to Texas law, the court observed that “[a]s a general rule, a person has no legal duty to protect another from the criminal acts of a third person or control the conduct of another.”

Further, the court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that it was foreseeable minors could be injured by the criminal acts of adult MySpace users:

To impose a duty under these circumstances for MySpace to confirm or determine the age of each applicant, with liability resulting from negligence in performing or not performing that duty, would of course stop MySpace’s business in its tracks and close this avenue of communication, which Congress in its wisdom has decided to protect.

With this holding, the court declined to accept Plaintiffs’ argument that the duty of a premises owner should extend to a website as a “virtual premises.”

Doe v. MySpace, Inc., No. 06-983 (W.D. Tex. Feb. 13, 2007)