Federal Law Limits Social Networks Involvement in Cyberbullying Cases

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“It’s like the perfect crime”, said the mom of a 13-year-old boy whose reputation at school was destroyed when an unknown cyberbully set up a fake profile on Facebook to make it look as though the 13-year-old was posting vulgar comments about his classmates.  I say “unknown cyberbully” because the identity of the impostor is protected by a federal law—a law that prevents websites from identifying its users, unless requested by a judge.

This law, otherwise known as “Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act”, grants broad immunity to all types of interactive online services from certain types of legal liability stemming from user-created content. This immunity covers defamation and privacy claims. It also means that I, Mary Kay Hoal, as an operator Yoursphere.com, can chose not to care about protecting your child from cyberbullying incidents and therefore would not be obliged to help you. As the founder of Yoursphere, this concerns me, but it concerns be even more as a parent.

Well, just like the victim’s mother, I wouldn’t be anywhere near satisfied with Facebook’s way of remedying the situation by merely taking down the fake profile.  I would want to know who this person is and prevent him/her from ever doing it again; however, this boy’s mother would fall short of receiving any kind of real closure to the situation.

In the Slate article by Emily Bazelon, the boy’s mother admitted that even she was unsure as to whether or not the profile was set up by her son.  After all, the profile had her son’s information and photos on it.  But the mother soon realized that the time stamps on the posts didn’t make sense—her son wasn’t using the computer during those times.  The mother did what she could at the time and sent a question-filled email to Facebook’s Help Center hoping to get some resolution out of the unfortunate situation, but instead of receiving a reply back from Facebook, they just removed the profile from the site.  No questions answered.  No phone call.  “I literally spent HOURS on this situation, a 15-minute phone call would have gone a long way”.

Solutions to cyberbullying are hard to come by on any website, especially social networks that play host to hundreds of millions of users.  But it should be noted that unlike the ever-growing notorious MySpace, Facebook doesn’t even provide parents and teachers with a 24-hour phone hot line to report abusive, obscene or fake profiles.

The point brought up in the Slate article was by the executive director of Center of Safe and Responsible Internet Use, Nancy Willard, whom I very much admire.  She says that Facebook’s omission of this security feature is mainly due to the fact that Facebook didn’t initially open its gates to kids and teens 13 and older, whereas MySpace’s popularity among teens and tweens is what made the site successful to begin with.  The difference between the two social networks is that MySpace, due to several legal issues with online sex offenders, revamped their entire security system—one of the products of this revamp was the aforementioned 24-hour hot line.

Here’s what Joe Sullivan, Facebook’s chief security officer had to say about the situation, “To be honest, we don’t spend a lot of time getting back to people […] Our priority is reviewing the content and removing it if we think it’s inappropriate.”  That’s a great customer service motto you got goin’ there, Joe!  A gentle reminder parents, these are adults that are taking the control out of our hands.  If your child is under the age of 13, the Children’s Online Privacy Prevention Act requires that we be allowed to access our children’s posted information and take it down if we think it necessary.  While this is a case of cyberbullying by an anonymous user, the website does have an ethical obligation, in my opinion, to step in and help out within reason.

Nevertheless, if the punishment of cyberbullies extends only as far as removing their profile or banning them from the site, what’s to stop them from signing up again but under a different email address or different name?  At what point is the bullying serious enough that the Section 230 Act only acts as another obstacle in discovering who the perpetrator is?  A year later, this 13-year-old boy still doesn’t know who did this to him, and has removed himself from social interaction in and out of school because he doesn’t know who to trust.  Has justice been served in this situation?  I think not.

Sadly, one-on-one cyberbullying isn’t the only kind that exists on social networks.  As Bazelon points out, there have been instances where hate groups have been formed in Facebook—like the ‘Kick a Ginger Day’ group that targeted people with red hair and eventually led to the beating of a 12-year-old in Southern California.

Given situations like this and the former, it’s easy to wonder what role social networks play when it comes to protecting their users, especially when an issue that occurred online affects that person’s daily life. This isn’t to say that parents and school counselors shouldn’t partake in handling cyberbullying themselves by means only of education, but as Bazelon says, maybe the federal law protecting social networks from further involvement should be adjusted in an effort to get rid of these bullies once and for all.  With that said, as an operator of a website, I believe it is our corporate responsibility and ethical obligation to help a mom, a dad, a family, a child or a school out in whatever way realistically possible.

What do you think?

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  • And yet if we wrote a law to combat this problem and protect people, there would be so much protest online because people like their freedoms to harass, pirate music, slander anonymously, and THE PEOPLE literally think they own the internet now. It matters not that the United States Military/Government both invented and own the internet if you really want to get technical.

    When I was a kid in the 90s, we were all told that the internet is a source of information for people and a way for businesses to network and advertise. It is now a cesspool of filth and obsurdities with no morality in its population what so ever.

    The government needs to step in. Forget this NSA nonsense. We need to update the telecommunications act of 1996.

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