Plaintiffs, Jane Doe and her daughter, Julie Doe, filed suit against Defendants, MySpace, Inc. and its parent company, News Corporation, for the role MySpace played in the alleged sexual assault of Julie Doe. MySpace is a social networking web site that allows members to create online profiles, to create an online community through “friend invitations,” and to communicate with friends through e-mail, instant messaging, and blogs. Julie Doe created a MySpace profile, and 19-year-old Pete Solis contacted Julie Doe (then 14 years old) through MySpace. Julie gave Pete her phone number, and after talking over the phone for several weeks, they met in person. Plaintiffs alleged that Pete Solis sexually assaulted Julie Doe during this meeting and claimed that MySpace was liable for negligence, gross negligence, fraud, and negligent representation. Defendants moved to dismiss, and the Court granted Defendants’ motion to dismiss.
The Court held that Defendants were immune from publisher liability under the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (“CDA”), which states that “[n]o provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” 47 U.S.C. § 230(c)(1). Congress recognized that holding interactive computer services liable for third party content would have a chilling effect on online speech and enacted the CDA in order to promote “the continued development of the Internet and other interactive computer services,” 47 U.S.C. § 230(b)(1). The CDA shields interactive computer services like MySpace from liability for content created by third parties. Zeran v. America Online, Inc. established that this immunity from liability continues even after an interactive computer service has been notified of an allegedly defamatory or threatening post. 129 F.3d 327, 330 (4th Cir. 1997). In Zeran v. American Online, Inc., the court held that the CDA provided AOL with immunity from Zeran’s tort claim, which was based on AOL’s failure to remove certain postings and to prevent additional postings after being notified that they contained false content. Id. Likewise, the CDA provides Defendants with immunity from Plaintiffs’ tort claim, which is based on MySpace’s failure to take safety precautions to prevent sexual predators from communicating with minors after becoming aware that sexual predators were using MySpace to reach minors. The Court rejected Plaintiffs’ attempt to characterize their suit as concerning MySpace’s failure to take safety precautions rather than regarding MySpace’s editorial role in publishing third party content. Since Plaintiffs’ claim relied upon the fact that MySpace’s publication of communication between Julie Doe and Pete Solis led to the alleged sexual assault, the suit concerns MySpace’s publishing, editorial, and screening capacities, and the CDA squarely applies.
The Court held that Plaintiffs’ negligence and gross negligence claims also failed under common law because MySpace did not have a legal duty to implement safety measures to protect Julie Doe from sexual assault. In the absence of a special relationship, there is generally no duty to control a third person’s conduct. MySpace had no special relationship with either Pete Solis or Julie Doe and also had no control over the premises where the alleged sexual assault took place. Plaintiffs alleged that because premises owners have a duty to protect persons from injury by third parties on their premises when criminal acts are foreseeable, Defendants had a duty to protect minors from sexual assault by adult MySpace users given that such incidents were foreseeable. The Court declined to extend the duty of a premises owner to websites as “virtual premises” because: (1) imposing a duty to protect would pose such a burden upon MySpace that it would have to shut down and close this free forum of online communication, which Congress sought to foster through the CDA, and (2) interactive computer services like MySpace are similar to phone companies in their provision of a communication service and should not be required to protect strangers from injury by third parties just as phone companies and other service providers are exempt from this duty.
Plaintiffs withdrew their claims of fraud and misrepresentation, and the Court dismissed those claims without prejudice. The Court dismissed the negligence and gross negligence claims with prejudice.