“Julie” Doe’s secret online life started innocently enough, like many other teens communicating over the Internet.
The 14-year-old from Georgia joined Quest Personals, a phone chat service, after seeing it advertised on television. The site requires users to be over 18, but it has absolutely no security measure or age verification to ensure that those who say there are over 18 really are. Julie easily created a voice chat profile and began using Quest. No one from the service ever attempted to confirm her true age. And yet, in the course of her online conversations, Julie freely admitted her age — and almost immediately and magnetically, older men began calling her house often and at inappropriately late hours.
Julie’s mom, “Jane,” identified her daughter’s secret life from phone bills and from answering the phone — only to find a 30-year-old man on the receiving end asking for her precious little girl. Jane quickly took action and contacted Quest. She demanded that they terminate her minor daughter’s account. The site refused to do so, stating that Jane could not actually prove that Julie was under 18! Can you imagine? This chat line actually told a mom that she can’t prove the age of her own daughter. But that first phone call didn’t deter Jane. She persisted and continued to demand that Quest cease to operate her daughter’s account — but again, they refused. These unsuccessful attempts led to grown men arriving at their home vying for her teenager daughter’s attention, and even death threats when Julie’s dad explicitly told one user not to call. But it only got worse … and one family’s nightmare became reality.
Julie Doe’s online relationships culminated in a 58-year-old man arranging a rendezvous with the young teenager to his house. The man, Wayne McDonald, supplied sufficient alcohol to intoxicate her and then (as stated in the complaint) raped Julie and her friend. A week later, McDonald repeated the offense, driving the two girls back to his house — but this time he brought two friends, both of who raped the girls. Police arrested McDonald last year on charges of assault. He pled guilty and is serving 20 years in prison.
Aside from McDonald’s culpability, Jane Doe blames their living nightmare in part on Quest Personals and wants to hold them responsible. I can only imagine that as a mother, she felt helpless and powerless against a system that would not heed her warnings. She believes that with some cooperation, this tragedy could have been averted. Jane filed a lawsuit against Quest Personals and their parent company, claiming the service “has implemented no meaningful protections or security measures to prevent under age users … from talking to complete strangers many times their age, and from subsequently being enticed to meet by sexual predators.”
This is not the first time a parent has filed suit against a Web site for the sexual assault of a minor. Last year, a similar set of events transpired on MySpace when another 14-year-old girl lied about her age (the Web site also requires users to be at least 18, but has no verification system) and began chatting with a 19-year-old who later sexually assaulted her.
But the court dismissed the MySpace case when it ran into the liability shield of the Communications Decency Act (CDA). A Texas judge ruled in February that the website, considered an “information content provider” could not be forced to implement safety measures to protect underage users. The policy underlying the CDA is the promotion of the continued development of the Internet. In order to ensure that these Web site operators and other interactive computer services wouldn’t be crippled by lawsuits arising out of third party communications, the CDA provides these services with immunity.
In fact, several courts have applied the Act to recent lawsuits. In Carafano v. Metrosplash.com fake online personal ad listings led to the plaintiff’s receipt of sexually explicit letters, phone calls and hand delivered notes. The Ninth Circuit held that the CDA granted Matchmaker.com, the Internet service provider, with full immunity where a third party willingly provided the published information. The court explained the intent of the CDA, reiterating that it would be impossible for service providers to screen their millions of postings for problems and the “specter of tort liability in an area of such prolific speech would have an obvious chilling effect.”
In Julie’s case, the suit is still pending. The primary issue would be whether a phone chat line is considered an “interactive computer service” under the CDA. Courts tend to interpret the Act broadly and both these prior rulings suggest that Quest Personals will likely evade any liability. Further, applying standard tort law, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks said that MySpace had “no duty to protect” a minor from sexual predators “nor institute reasonable safety measures on its Web site. If anyone had a duty to protect [the minor] it was her parents, not MySpace.”
Ouch. That’s a pretty harsh sentiment. I agree that it’s the duty of a parent to be the watchdog and take responsibility for their child — BUT if an online service allows predators to troll through their site without any security, they should unequivocally take responsibility. I find it interesting that Quest realizes users need to be over 18, but still does nothing to enforce this rule. Children are at risk, and at the very least, these websites can implement some measure to verify a child’s age. It shouldn’t be that easy to fool the system. Not only is it negligent, it's dangerous.
It’s amazing to me that a court can find McDonald’s liable for the temperature of a hot drink, while Internet sites receive relative immunity for their irresponsibility. Why are the standards so different when they pertain to protecting our children? Installing a few safety precautions should be mandatory for all these “services.” Our children deserve more than an excuse from an online chat room.
Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. She is currently a professor of law at the New York Law School. Wiehl received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College in 1983 and received her Master of Arts in Literature from the University of Queensland in 1985. In addition, she earned her Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 1987. Lis is also the author of The 51% Minority — How Women Still Are Not Equal and What You Can Do About It. (Watch the Video) To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.