Whose fault is it that 13-year-old “Julie Doe” lied about her age, met a guy on MySpace.com and was allegedly sexually assaulted by him in a Texas parking lot?
Not MySpace’s, a federal judge said in a decision released Wednesday.
The ruling appears to be the first time a federal court has extended to social-networking sites the same broad free-speech protections granted to Internet service providers. It could prove pivotal, coming at a time when educators, lawmakers and state attorneys general are leaning on News Corp.-owned MySpace to protect young users from online predators.
“A lot of people are angry about what kids are doing and what’s happening on the Internet,” said Parry Aftab, a leading Internet child safety expert. “That’s fine. But it is not MySpace’s role to raise your child.”
Authorities in Travis County, Texas, charged a 19-year-old man with sexual assault last summer in connection with the Julie Doe case. The girl’s parents sued News Corp. for $30 million, saying Beverly Hills-based MySpace didn’t do enough to protect its members. At least four similar cases are pending in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
“If anyone had a duty to protect Julie Doe, it was her parents, not MySpace,” Judge Sam Sparks wrote in a ruling dismissing the case.
Sparks, of U.S. District Court in Austin, Texas, said MySpace couldn’t be held liable for the actions of its users any more than Yahoo Inc. was responsible for what people write on its message boards.
The judge also said MySpace should not be punished for the failure of its voluntary safety measures. If it were, he said, Internet firms would stop taking such steps to protect its users.
Since News Corp. acquired MySpace in July 2005, the website has worked to counter its public image as a haven for unsavory characters. It hired a former federal prosecutor as chief safety officer, ran public service announcements on its website and on TV warning children to be cautious of strangers online and began working on software that allows parental control.
“MySpace has always been concerned about what happened to Julie Doe, because we take the safety and security of our community very seriously,” the site said in a statement Wednesday. “However, a lawsuit against MySpace was not the appropriate way to redress any harm to her.”
In his ruling, Sparks applied the 1996 Communications Decency Act, in which Congress said Internet service providers should not be held liable for content posted on their sites by third parties. A year after the law passed, the Supreme Court struck down its most controversial portion -- online censorship provisions that sought to protect minors from obscene and indecent material -- but left intact the immunity for service providers.
“The concept is basically the same,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public interest research group in Washington. “The exact same things were happening in AOL chat rooms as are now happening on Facebook and MySpace and elsewhere: People are exchanging information and meeting each other in online environments.”
In the last decade, Rotenberg said, courts have interpreted that immunity very broadly out of “recognition that, if [Internet service providers] became responsible for editorial content of anyone who participated in online chat, it would be impossible to host a site.”
According to court documents, the 13-year-old girl known as Julie Doe listed her age as 18 when she joined MySpace. In April, when she was 14, the girl was contacted through the site by college freshman Pete Solis. They exchanged e-mails and phone calls, then went out for dinner and a movie. Police say he then sexually assaulted her in a parking lot.
Austin lawyer Adam J. Loewy, who represented the girl, said they were disappointed in the ruling and planned an appeal.
“We were prepared for a very long battle in this,” Loewy said.
University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias said the Texas court’s ruling would not establish a legal precedent for other judges to follow but could influence them as they consider similar civil suits.
Bipartisan legislation was proposed last month to require sexual offenders to register their e-mail addresses with authorities and the addresses passed on to social networking sites.
Last year, the House passed legislation that would have prohibited schools and libraries that receive federal funds from allowing minors to access networking sites. The legislation never came up in the Senate, but last month Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) included it in a broader proposed bill to protect children online.
Times researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.