Bebo, AOL’s most recent acquisition in the social networking space, has been laid to blame for a suicide of Sam Leeson, a 13 year old student from Tredworth, Gloucestershire (UK). Yet again, this is another instance of people not taking responsibility and laying blame into a social network provider.
Before I go into my typical tirade on topics like this, I want to share that it is terrible that young people can be so easily exploited and manipulated online when in actuality, they needed the proper attention and support from those close to them. It is a tragedy that anyone commits suicide, let alone, on social networks because of cyberbullying. My wishes are with the family and his friends during this difficult time.
As far as liability, since Bebo is now exclusively owned by the United States under AOL, it is bound by US laws (both good and bad). One of the provisions that the US offers is immunity from damage between users on a network. That is, if someone taunted someone else, even maliciously, the provider is immune from all legal and civil liabilities. For an example of this, look up Zeran v. America Online to see how the Communications Decency Act, Section 230 was applied.
I don’t hold Bebo liable, unless…
- It is proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Bebo demonstrated negligence in handle abuse reports;
- It is proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the user (Leeson) had adequately reported such harassing situations three or more times;
- It is proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Bebo fails to maintain records regarding abuse reports.
The Internet has proven many new legal challenges as it has evolved. First, with defamation and free-speech, to copyright and tangible goods on an intangible medium, to now liability in the even of death and emotional damage online.
Time and time again, legislators believe that we should regulate the Internet to the degree we regulate television and radio. I disagree with these beliefs because the Internet was founded with a democratic, equal and free intentions and anything interfering with that is breaching on the civil liberties that the Internet grants all people. As we move forward, you will observe that legislators will make reference to the Sam Leeson and Megan Meier suicides on the Internet in order to pass restrictive (and unequivocally, ineffective) laws and acts that will allegedly provide for safety and the ultimate good-will of the Internet itself. Be aware.
As we technologically move forward, we must not forget our principles that got us here, principles such as the freedom to think, express ourselves and the right to challenge the status quo (among additional digital civil liberties that came as a result.) We must not allow service providers to be held liable in the event of damage between their users. We must do everything reasonable to help educate and manage user activity.
Here is a parallel example of Bebo’s liability is this example:
- Jane is driving a Chevrolet Impala, doing the speed limit on a road,
- John is driving a Chevrolet Impala, doing the speed limit on a road,
- Both end up colliding into each other by running a stop sign. John and Jane both die on the scene. Investigators determine both were equally as wrong in the accident. Family members determined to seek liability sit down and look at who else they can lay blame in the catastrophic event.
- Chevrolet is then sued by both families for the amount of $200 million in an effort to make the company install special sensors that watch for stop signs and stops the vehicle automatically.
- Who do you think is liable?
In my perspective, no one should be held liable, as both parties were negligent in managing their own behavior. There is nothing Chevrolet could have done to prevent such circumstances from taking place. The same calculation needs to take place with Bebo. It is my belief that whomever presides over the case needs to remove the fact that the suicide took place over the Internet and then charge the offending parties with Verbal Assault (the equivalent, thereof) and Manslaughter since their actions directly lead to the immediate and premature death of Leeson.
While Bebo is based now in the United States, I wonder how UK regulators will determine liability. Bebo, as you might know has a very strong UK demographic compared to MySpace with a very strong US demographic.
What do you think? Who should be liable, if anyone?