There are times when I believe somebody's got to shoulder the blame for a scourge happening. A case like that would be the current furore struck up by civilians and fire-fighters dying of lung infections brought on by the dust clouds from the falling World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001 — the city has to give them some sort of compensation since there was too little to do since the attacks were so sudden. In other cases, particularly those arising on the Internet, I pity the many sites, such as Match.com and MySpace, who have come under fire due to the plethora of stories of women being raped and killed — underage girls in the latter case.
Many of you who still have MySpace accounts may have taken notice to the new practice of barring adults from contacting kids using the service. This is testament that this whole kerfuffle over social networking sites being responsible for the welfare of underage end users has finally reached the point where things have to be sacrificed in order to remain sheltered from the legal firestorm. In the spring of 2006, a 14-year-old user and her mother, afresh from a date with a 19-year-old — who claimed to be a high school senior with a football record — that ended in rape, sued the News Corporation for neglecting such a danger while running MySpace. Now, like any other social networking site, it voluntarily posted a set of guidelines for young users concerning how to keep themselves safe on the Internet, but for this girl, the site needed an active cushion. While MySpace had for a running period of time been the venue for several encounters that led to assaults, this was the first time the unthinkable happened — someone was suing the site! What's more, News Corp jumped in its shoes and turned the spigot of communication reform.
While it is rather noble of a site like MySpace, which has been no stranger to the ills of its service, to implement cautionary measures, there simply are too many problems for them to handle. Firstly, at time of writing, there is no credit-card or other parental validation since the site meets COPPA with a registration age minimum of 14. Secondly, there is no viable way of making sure the pervs don't join; it's not like booking a reservation at the counter complete with tête-à-tête communication between the customer and clerk, and there exists no database capable of extorting the aliases of sex offenders every second of every minute. Tech buffs like me have been aware of this for ages; a web site cannot perfectly verify anyone and there will always be a lot of room for error.
MySpace is nothing more than a web service. It is not a day-care centre; it is not a parent. To its users it seems to be just like a game on OneMoreLevel or even one of the Math Blaster games, where there is little interaction that equates to human communication. The most that can be done to intervene is to instruct users on how to use the site, even setting up an account if need be. When you suspect a message to contain a virus, don't open the attachment; ergo, if you think somebody's trying to impress you so much as to get credentials needed to contact you in real life, you should think it over and decide whether it's worth the risk. This is why I believe your best friend is a webcam, especially if both ends are using it; you know exactly with whom you're communicating and you have body language available to you.
If MySpace had openly solicited sex offenders, it would be in a violation tantamount to the actual assaults; however, it is merely a web service, and it should not have any responsibility for what happens off the site unless they directly sponsor it. The meeting referenced above was arranged by the girl and the boy on their own terms, independent from anything MySpace specifically set down, so MySpace technically is not responsible; and had the case made it to, say, the Supreme Court, MySpace would have won, and we'd have had another resolution indemnifying such sites just as McDonald's was indemnified for obesity.
By now you might have clicked the link and realised that it led to a LiveJournal picket rather than the ubiquitous news story of someone meeting a man on MySpace and being assaulted. As is MySpace, LiveJournal is a web service, and what it can do in order to promote a good environment is essentially the same as moderating a forum. While discussion of illegal activity in general is something that can't be punished, a journal dedicated to the promotion of such is a totally different matter, and there are laws prohibiting the service from knowingly playing host. Here, the user roaring has rallied users to protest SixApart's surprise practice of removing journals and communities that have to do with paedophilia or pornography, among many illegal intents. The cited yaoi_smut_fics community apparently spawned after two deletions based on the fact that it, well, housed gay porn fics! Also cited was the following comment:
It's not that I don't care about anyone or anything. It's just that I'm too lazy to care. I don't mean anyone any harm and I sincerely hope everyone in the world leads a great life but I really don't want to do anything to help them have a great life.
There is a 13 year old girl who lives a few houses down. I want to [expletive] her and [elaboration removed for taste, as the intent is pretty clear from the start]. I'm 18 years older than her and I'm a woman.
The comment was reported, but LiveJournal's service team stated that such comments were nothing they had a hold of — although in the interest of taste it should have been removed — or even at that, who the hell unscreened that comment?
We understand and agree that this is very disturbing, we cannot take action against a user for admitting that they have committed illegal activities or are thinking about committing illegal activities. It is not illegal to discuss illegal actions. We can only take action if the user is actively encouraging others to commit such actions, or if they are soliciting or providing information on how to do so. Because this is not the case here, we regret that we cannot take action.The protest's prosecution is a default removal notice sent to a friend:
Your journal and/or its associated profile or interests has been reported to us as containing material which expresses interest in, solicits, or encourages illegal activity. As this is a violation of both LiveJournal's Terms of Service and United States law, we have permanently suspended the journal.If you read carefully, though, you will notice that the said notice was delivered based on an offence created by the entire journal, not by two or three comments; a judgement otherwise would be egregious. While the comment should not have appeared, and I assume SixApart wants such decisions to rest with the journal or community on which it appears, you just can't deny that posting porn on a public venue isn't a great idea.
This, however, is where the difference between profiles and comments comes in when it comes to moderation. LiveJournal, of course, is a blogging site. While MySpace and LiveJournal both have an obligation to remove porn and they both cannot be indicted for actions taken off the site, the reason LiveJournal has ignored the comment — and the reason MySpace would do the same — is probably because such territory is that of the one running the profile or blog, and it's the fault of whomever unscreened it if it remains on the page.
In any case, if something bad is posted as a comment, or if a date set up on a social networking site goes awry, the ones involved have no-one to blame but themselves. I'll say it again: MySpace is not your day-care, and LiveJournal can only care more about the blogs it's hosting more than the comments. After all, not everyone with a balanced mind would have responded to the aforementioned comment the same way.