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Interactive content providers and rape victims

By Scott Tibbs, April 26, 2013

A federal appeals court ruled in May of 2008 that interactive content providers are not legally liable for content posted on their sites, in that case MySpace.com, after a teenage girl was sexually assaulted by a man she met through the social networking site. The family had alleged that MySpace.com did not properly protect teens from sexual predators, but the Associated Press reports that Judge Edith Brown Clement "ruled that the Communications Decency Act of 1996 bars such lawsuits against Web-based services like MySpace." (I addressed this when it happened.)

This is important to note in the case of Rehtaeh Parsons, who was gang-raped at the age of 15 and killed herself two years later after being harassed and cyberstalked. Images of the attack were posted to social-media websites, much like what happened in the shocking and abhorrent Steubenville rape case in 2012. A children's advocacy group calling itself the Red Hood Project is calling for Facebook and other social media websites to be more responsible but also for government action to prevent abusive images from being posted to the sites in the first place.

One suggestion was for Facebook be punished with "something like a $10 million fine every time someone posted the image" of a sexual assault in progress. As noted above, such an action is not legally permitted in the United States because of the Communications Decency Act. I am not familiar enough with Canadian law to comment on that, but even if it is legally permissible it would be a bad idea.

Obviously, no person with any human decency wants to see victims of rape and sexual assault humiliated and tormented in public by perverted monsters who gloat about and post images of their crimes on the Internet. Such despicable and depraved actions should be punished to the fullest extent of the law and I would fully support legislation enacting harsher penalties for crimes like this in addition to making the punishment for the rapists themselves harsher when they use social media to gloat about the crimes they commit.

But punishing the social media sites themselves is a tricky area and will have serious unintended consequences. Social media websites can (and do) take things down, but preventing things from being posted in the first place is a completely different matter. Interactive content providers (whether they are social media websites, discussion forums or newspaper comment sections) for the most part cannot screen content before it is posted, and hitting them with huge fines every time one of their users does something illegal will either force heavy-handed censorship or shut them down completely. Punishing social media websites for actions of users who are breaking the law and the website's Terms of Service Agreement is like punishing Honda and Budweiser when someone is driving drunk.

Unfortunately, the virtual raw sewage we see posted on the Internet is a product of our society. If the bastards who post images of themselves raping an unconscious teenage girl had been raised by mothers and fathers who taught them to be real men who respect and honor women, they would not have considered assaulting an unconscious teenager, much less gloat about it on the Internet. The problem here is a problem with our culture, not Facebook. The place to start fixing this is (as always) within the church. We must train our covenant sons to honor and respect women.