Verizon wireless being sued: The legal minefield of mobile social networks

From RCR wireless ..

A very significant post. from RCR wireless Emphasis mine.

Thanks to Kim Dushinski for pointing this to me

By Colin Gibbs

You may not have noticed last week’s news that Verizon Wireless is being sued by the parents of a 14-year-old girl who claims she was sexually assaulted by a man she met through a mobile social-networking service. But the case is likely a little taste of what’s to come for operators over the next few years.

In case you missed it, RCR Wireless News beltway reporter Jeff Silva broke the story that the girl — who is described as “developmentally delayed” — claims to have met the 31-year-old man through Upoc Networks, a startup that operates a mobile social-networking service available through Verizon’s “Get It Now” storefront (and elsewhere). The man allegedly sexually assaulted her on two separate occasions two years ago, according to the lawsuit, which also claims the carrier is liable because it failed to warn the family that the phone was capable of accessing the Internet and downloading social applications. (Verizon has declined to comment on the case.)

The news isn’t surprising, of course, given the flurry of litigious activity surrounding online communities. MySpace has become embroiled in several similar legal tussles, and has hired a company run by a former New York cop to weed out sexual predators who create online profiles in the hopes of luring under-age members. Facebook has come under scrutiny, too: The Connecticut attorney general last year began investigating the social-networking flavor of the month to determine whether convicted sex offenders had built profiles on what has become the next big thing in community sites. And chest-thumping politicians have joined the fray, introducing legislation to ban convicted predators from the white-hot Internet destinations.

But the latest legal action appears to mark the first time wireless players have been dragged into the courtroom over a social-networking service. And it may be the first in a long line of courtroom battles for carriers as they scramble to tap into the exploding social-networking scene. While Internet service providers have avoided the legal flak, network operators have two obvious weaknesses in these early days of the mobile Internet: As the Upoc case underscores, they’re still largely seen as phone companies, leaving them vulnerable consumers’ claims that they were shocked — shocked! — to learn that cellphones can access the Internet. More importantly, consumers see network operators as endorsers of the offerings that appear on the deck — or, more likely, view on-deck services as the carrier’s own.

Most, if not all, of the recent sex-predator suits brought against the MySpaces and Facebooks of the world have failed to hold any sway with the courts — and for good reason. An assistant professor at Santa Clara University School of Law called the sex-crime lawsuits “obvious losers,” opining that blaming MySpace for actions that take place away from the site presents “a major causation problem.”

Indeed, mobile service providers may have plenty of legal cover in these early days of mobile social communities. But as social-networking services begin to gain mass-market traction in wireless — and as GPS functionality allows members to pinpoint the location of others — we can expect more lawsuits that target carriers as well as those who operate the virtual communities.

Comments

  1. RG says:

    It’s disappointing that the large on-line social networks take a legal defense approach. When the OAG of several states subpoenaed Facebook and myspace they worked the legal angles, and indulged in stone walling and filibusterer techniques (still going on). They’re so nervous that they may lose visitors that they won’t try to confront the problem. It’s a big costly problem to fight, but they make lot’s of money right??