Should online intermediaries be liable for sexual assaults?

Bizarre piece of news. Myspace is being sued by five families who claim that their children were sexually assaulted by men they met in the web space. Details are sketchy, but apparently five teenage girls have joined forces in order to hold Myspace liable for the real-life assaults they were subjected to after meeting people online.

The story is sketchy (and has not been picked up elsewhere as far as I can tell), so we will have to speculate about the details. It is not clear at this time whether Myspace was instrumental in the assaults, or if the teenage girls had more contact through other means. What seems clear is that Myspace was the place where the predators met their victims (that last sentence sounded almost as if lifted from the Daily Mail, but I digress). So, is that fact enough to warrant some form of liability from Myspace? In other words, should online intermediaries be held liable for sexual assaults that occur in the real world as a result of online contact?

I am seriously sceptical about holding intermediaries liable in situations like this. For example, in an unrelated incident two men have been convicted of raping a woman they met in Myspace, but the social networking site had no bearing in what took place, it simply acted as a meeting place. All around the world, victims meet their attackers in all sorts of social meeting places, such as bars and restaurants. Should these locales be held liable for whatever happens? True, online environments provide a modicum of anonymity, so stalkers and groomers can pretend to be something they are not. But surely, by now every parent must instil in their children the mantra that you should not meet people from cyberspace, in the same way that we tell them not to talk to strangers, or get into vehicles with them.

In short, Myspace is just a virtual meeting room, and its liabilities regarding offline behaviour should end when people shut down their systems. I cannot see any reason why it should be extended beyond that.

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