Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Rape and Personal Responsibility vs. Corporate Responsibility

Several bloggers, including Shakespeare's Sister and Lab Kat have reacted to this story: Girl, 14, sues alleging assault with the demand that we all take personal responsibility and don't blame others for our problems.

To expect a business to take any responsibility for contributing to a rape that resulted from a relationship started through the business is just plain stupid. Right?

The problem with this blanket response is it ignores possible negligence in the development, marketing or operation of a product aimed at minors. MySpace's business is focused on forming new relationships so it isn't comparable to a rapist and rape victim who first meet at the local mall.

From the Welcome Friend, to! page:

Step 1: Create your FREE profile Creating a profile in MySpace is fast, fun, and easy. You can disclose as much or as little information about yourself as you want. MySpace will always keep your personal information private and confidential. We will only show what you choose to share. You can even post pictures of yourself to add to the fun - ALL FREE!
Nothing here about safety and nothing on the navigation bar either. I clicked the Next button and got an error telling me page not found.

When I clicked on "sign up" I found nothing about safety in the body of the page.

What I did see most prominently was (in graphics):

1 Create your profile 2 upload your picture 3 make new friends
No step in there that says: "make a safety plan."

In the navigation bar at the bottom of the home page and the sign up page there is an item labeled, "Safety Tips." Since there was a prominent box on the sign up page informing users that MySpace doesn't spam users and several equally prominent boxes on the home page, important information can be highlighted.

Why isn't safety as prominent as privacy? Maybe because some new members would decide not to join if they associated signing up with MySpace with an increased risk of being raped. In that case, the less prominent placement of safety information is a business decision.

So what's the trade off between more business and safer clients? I can't blindly excuse businesses by saying all responsibility belongs to the consumer and/or the consumer's parents.

While we may think everybody understands the safety issues on a site like MySpace, that isn't necessarily true. Look at the Safety Tips and think about how it frames the risks to a 14-year old (or someone younger) who can't imagine that someone who sounds nice may be lying about much more than age.
When meeting a stranger, the recommendation is lax since taking a friend to meet a stranger in a public place may be putting two minors in a very dangerous situation.

Sadly, many times it takes an "outrageous" lawsuit for companies to modify their marketing efforts so all of their customers will be given the warnings they need to make fully informed decisions.

I'm not talking about piling the warnings on so deep that readers skip right on by the doom-and-gloom section. That's no better in practical terms than insufficient warnings. I'm talking about allowing reality to mix with the spin from the moment someone considers creating a MySpace profile.

Reuters, the top online teen hangout, said on Tuesday it will bolster protection for minors amid a flurry of complaints about sexual predators prowling the site and a lawsuit filed on Monday by a teenage girl charging it with negligent security practices. By next week, members over 18 years old would have to know the e-mail or first and last name of any 14- to 15-year-old member whom they want to contact, the company said. Any of MySpace's more than 85 million members would also be able to choose to hide their online profiles from strangers and only make them viewable to pre-approved friends, the company said.
Without the threat of financial loss, many companies would simply say, "Buyer beware" when they see a major risk for their customers and decide to ignore that risk. At least until something happens that damages the company's PR or bottom line.

Now those are serious matters.

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posted by Marcella Chester @ 12:01 AM   2 comments links to this post


At June 21, 2006 2:11 PM, Blogger Kaethe said...

Why is it so hard to believe that anyone who specifically markets to teens should be in some minimal way responsible for their safety? We blame the Catholic church for pedophile priests. We expect schools to screen for sex offenders as employees or volunteers. Why would it be irrational to expect MySpace to do something?

And why do people get so chapped about lawsuits? Even if the lawsuit were totally frivilous (and I don't think it is) what the hell difference does it make? Sheesh, it's not like the State is going to lock down News Corp., or hold Murdoch incommunicado at Guantanamo.

I just saw way too many comments along the line of "I'm sorry for the poor girl if she was assaulted, then the boy should be tried, but she really can't blame someone else..."

At June 21, 2006 4:38 PM, Blogger Marcella Chester said...


Yes, there were certainly some comments that felt like victim blaming to me in some of the responses to this lawsuit.


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