America's most talked about lawsuit highlights the perceived risks of 'social networking' websites
Imagine this: Pete and Julie, a couple of teenagers, meet at a local coffee shop. After phone calls and emails, they arrange a date - McDonalds and a movie - and one thing leads to another in the back seat of Pete's car. When Julie’s mom finds out, she’s furious, especially as Julie is only 14. Pete is practically a jaded oldster at 19. Result: family hires lawyers who announce that they’ve identified a perhaps unexpected culprit. According to the family, the coffee shop is to blame for putting Julie in a position where an "adult sexual predator" (namely Pete) could sweet-talk the girl into an eventually dangerous situation. The family sues the shop’s owners for $30 million, which their lawyer says is a "bare minimum" to compensate the damage done and to punish them for not better chaperoning their premises.
Of course, this wouldn’t have been the most talked-about American lawsuit of the past month had Pete and Julie actually met at a coffee shop. As everyone now knows, they instead met on MySpace, the smash-hit "social-networking" website whose popularity with the teen set has helped make it the most trafficked site in the United States (and which, like this site, is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation).
Much uncritical publicity was accorded the lawsuit when it was filed last month, but since then doubts have crept in:
MySpace’s most vocal critics, state attorneys general, make it sound as if websites could easily verify users’ ages if they wanted to. "Don’t tell me it can’t be done," Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal said. But a story out this week from the Associated Press made clear that it is not so easy. No overall database tracks kids and their ages, and any such database would itself pose new dangers. So instead the attorneys general are suggesting the sites be blocked to millions of users who would in fact use the sites responsibly (by teenage standards, at least) but who can’t produce, say, a credit card and drivers’ license. Tom Reilly, the Massachusetts Attorney-General, has demanded that MySpace kick off all users under 18, period. He should be glad 17-year-olds can’t vote.
Considering the way teens are known for gravitating to the unchaperoned party, it’s actually pretty impressive how much protection from potential nastiness the site does provide. Just make sure none of these people ever find out about Craigslist.
Original Source: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/article689448.ece