Tuesday, June 20, 2006
A 14-year-old Travis County girl who said she was sexually assaulted by a Buda man she met on MySpace.com sued the popular social networking site Monday for $30 million, claiming that it fails to protect minors from adult sexual predators.
The lawsuit claims that the Web site does not require users to verify their age and calls the security measures aimed at preventing strangers from contacting users younger than 16 "utterly ineffective."
"MySpace is more concerned about making money than protecting children online," said Adam Loewy, who is representing the girl and her mother in the lawsuit against MySpace, parent company News Corp. and Pete Solis, the 19-year-old accused of sexually assaulting the girl.
Hemanshu Nigam, the chief security officer for MySpace.com, said in a written statement: "We take aggressive measures to protect our members. We encourage everyone on the Internet to engage in smart web practices and have open family dialogue about how to apply offline lessons in the online world."
Founded in 2003, MySpace has more than 80 million registered users worldwide and is the world's third most-viewed Web site, according to the lawsuit.
Loewy said the lawsuit is the first of its kind in the nation against MySpace.
Solis contacted the girl through her MySpace Web site in April, telling her that he was a high school senior who played on the football team, according to the lawsuit.
In May, after a series of e-mails and phone calls, he picked her up at school, took her out to eat and to a movie, then drove her to an apartment complex parking lot in South Austin, where he sexually assaulted her, police said. He was arrested May 19.
The lawsuit includes news reports of other assault cases in which girls were contacted through MySpace. They include a 22-year-old Wisconsin man charged with six counts of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl and a 27-year-old Connecticut man accused of sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl.
MySpace says on a "Tips for Parents" page that users must be 14 or older. The Web site does nothing to verify the age of the user, such as requiring a driver's license or credit card number, Loewy said.
To create an account, a MySpace user must list a name, an e-mail address, sex, country and date of birth.
"None of this has to be true," the lawsuit said.
Attorneys general from five states, including Texas, have asked MySpace.com to provide more security, the lawsuit said. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott sent a letter to the MySpace.com chief executive officer May 22, asking him to require users to verify their age and identity with a credit card or verified e-mail account.
Lauren Gelman, associate director of the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, said she does not think MySpace is legally responsible for what happens away from its site.
"If you interact on MySpace, you are safe, but if a 13-year-old or 14-year-old goes out in person and meets someone she doesn't know, that is always an unsafe endeavor," Gelman said. "We need to teach our kids to be wary of strangers."
Loewy said he was confident about the lawsuit, which he said seeks damages worth 1 percent of the company's estimated worth.
"We feel that 1 percent of that is the bare minimum that they should compensate the girl for their failure to protect her online when they knew sexual predators were on that site," he said.