Can Snapchat be held liable for showing adult content to kids? That’s the question being posed by a new lawsuit filed by a mother who says her 14-year-old son came across inappropriate content on the app without warning.
Specifically, the lawsuit calls out the content from third party publishers in the Discover tab, which sometimes contains references to sex, drugs and other subject matter considered too salacious for minors. In the 32-page civil complaint, the unnamed boy allegedly came across numerous “Snapchat Discover” stories with titles like: “10 Things He Thinks When He Can’t Make You Orgasm” and “I Got High, Blown, and Robbed When I Was A Pizza Delivery Guy.”
The suit, which cites Snapchat content partners like “DailyMail, Buzzfeed, Vice, Cosmopolitian, Fusion, MTV, and a handful of other popular media publishers,” says the app’s Terms of Service “includes no warnings about the offensive content on Snapchat Discover.”
The lawsuit’s success will come down to the interpretation of the First Amendment and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which has been previously been read by the courts to absolve websites of responsibility for third party content. But the law also requires sites (and presumably apps, which weren’t prevalent at the time of the law’s passage) to provide some warning that adult content is ahead. Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University, may have found a “brilliant” way around those laws, or it may be “the latest failed crazy attempt to hold websites liable for third party content.”
Because it is a proposed class-action suit on behalf of Snapchat’s approximately 150 million users, and because each violation of the act incurs a fine of $50,000, the company could be liable for millions of dollars if a judge certifies it and Snapchat loses. What impact it would have for other platforms like Facebook, which struggled this week to determine how to host graphic content, is not yet clear.
Noah Edwardsen, a Snapchat spokesman, told Ars Technica in a statement: “We haven’t been served with a complaint in this lawsuit, but we are sorry if people were offended. Our Discover partners have editorial independence, which is something that we support.”
[Photo: Mark Geragos and Ben Mieselas]