Snapchat doesn't do enough to warn teenagers and parents about sexual content on its app, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday by celebrity attorney Mark Geragos on behalf of a family.
The suit concerns articles hosted on Snapchat, including "People share their secret rules for sex" and "10 things he thinks when he can't make you orgasm." Such material is "adult-rated content that parents would likely prohibit" had they known it's found without restrictions on Snapchat, according to the lawsuit.
One the world's highest-valued technology start-ups at an estimated $16 billion, Snapchat primarily serves as a forum for friends to trade messages, photos and videos. But last year, the Venice company began promoting articles and videos from several media companies, including BuzzFeed, MTV and Cosmopolitan magazine. The articles can be forwarded to other users – of whom there are at least 150 million each day, with an estimated 25% under age in the U.S.
Though Snapchat's terms of service warn users not to send sexually explicit messages, the document doesn't warn that they might encounter offensive content on Discover, where articles and videos are found. And it doesn't tell people that there might be ways – such as third-party monitoring software – for minors to avoid the inappropriate material. To sign up for Snapchat, users must say they are at least 13 years old (the same minimum age at competitors such as Facebook and Twitter).
To Geragos, the circumstances add up to a violation of federal law that merits a $50,000-a-day civil penalty.
"A lot of the sites have taken the affirmative approach of dealing with this," but Snapchat isn't one of them, said Geragos, known for representing convicted murderer Scott Peterson and celebrities including Michael Jackson and Chris Brown.
Snapchat spokesman Noah Edwardsen said in a statement that the company hasn't been formally served the lawsuit, "but we are sorry if people were offended. Our Discover partners have editorial independence, which is something that we support."
That last remark could become a big issue in the case, should it move forward.
Citing a federal law, courts have generally held Internet companies immune from lawsuits concerning material distributed on their service by third parties.
But the lawsuit describes Snapchat as anything but a passive player in distribution. Because Snapchat handpicked media companies for Discover and advises them on content strategies, the start-up shouldn't get immunity, attorneys contend. Snapchat generates revenue from ads placed between the content.
About 25 people contacted Geragos over the last year complaining about how Snapchat was making it easy for children to find crude images and sexual references, he said. Others were concerned about drugs and alcohol being a common topic.
The lawsuit points to several from last weekend, including a BuzzFeed article that took screen shots of facial reactions in popular Disney movies and captioned them with references to sexual intercourse.
Adults might find such articles clever, but many wouldn't want their children exposed to that, the lawsuit states.
An unnamed minor and the child's parent, Lynette Young, are listed as lead plaintiffs in the filing, which seeks class-action status.
Snapchat's user agreement bars class-action filings and mandates all disputes go through arbitration, unless users opt out by writing the company within 30 days of joining.
A hearing hasn't been scheduled in the case, filed at U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.