A lawsuit against MySpace has been dismissed by a U.S. District Judge who declared the social-networking site protected under the Communications Decency Act.
The $30 million suit was filed by the family of a 13-year-old girl who says she was sexually assaulted by a 19-year-old man she met through the site. The family accused MySpace of lacking proper controls for its underage users.
In the ruling, Judge Sam Sparks noted that the site cannot be expected to verify the age of every user, although it does set 14 as the minimum age for registration.
The act cited by the judge is designed to grant immunity to interactive online services for the content posted by their users. In his decision, Sparks wrote that companies like MySpace would be crippled by lawsuits arising out of third-party communications if they were made responsible for user actions.
In the ruling, Sparks also noted that the girl lied about her age, posing as an 18-year-old and ignoring the minimum age requirement stated by MySpace during user signup.
The attorney for the family, Adam Loewy of Austin-based Barry & Loewy, was quoted in news reports as saying that the family would appeal the decision. He also said the family plans to file charges of fraud and misrepresentation to go along with the current charges of negligence.
There are other, similar suits pending against MySpace, filed in state court in California, that allege the site was negligent in protecting teen users.
The suits were filed around the same time that MySpace announced the development of a free parental control tool that's expected to be available this summer. The tool, codenamed "Zephyr," will allow parents to check the basic information posted by their teens, including age, location, and username.
Other controls that have been recently implemented include a more sophisticated background check system, which compares user profiles with state and federal databases of sex offenders.
The site also hired about 100 employees last year to handle security issues, and created an ad campaign in conjunction with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children to raise awareness among teenagers about the dangers of posting too much personal information online.
"There's more that can be done in terms of protecting underage MySpace users, but the good news is that the site is listening," said Parry Aftab, executive director of watchdog group WiredSafety, which consults with MySpace and is currently helping to create more education initiatives for the site.
"The question of how to make a site like MySpace safer is difficult, because you have many different elements," Aftab added. "Not only do you have user education, but Congress needs to be involved, and law enforcement, and parents. This will be an ongoing issues for some time."