News Corp. Defending MySpace Verification Lawsuit Amid Fake Wendi Deng Twitter Outcry

Murdoch and Wendi Deng (2008)
AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

Murdoch with third wife Deng at Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World Gala.

Earlier today, we asked "Should the Murdochs sue Twitter for verifying Wendi Deng?"

News Corp. already has said that it has "no plans to pursue any actions." There are many possible reasons why a multi-billionaire doesn't want to go to the trouble of suing a popular social networking site, especially as the company continues to be haunted by allegations of illicit hacking.

But here's one more: News Corp. itself is currently being sued by an individual named Julie Riggs who ran a celebrity verification service called "Celebrity Guardian Angel," which suffered after going toe-to-toe with the giant corporation over a Johnny Depp imposter on MySpace.

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Remember MySpace? It was the big social media service that was formerly owned by News Corp. Like Twitter, it had its own problems with celebrity impersonators. And even though News Corp. sold the fading site, the company is still defending itself over MySpace's verification program.

The connection was pointed out to us by Riggs herself, who emailed her amusement with our earlier post.

"I found it interesting that you asked if Rupert Murdoch should sue when his company has a lawsuit against it about this very thing," she told us.

Riggs had a MySpace page that verified whether celebrity accounts were real or not. Before Twitter launched its own service, Riggs was a pioneer in offering badges so celebrities could show they were who they said they were. But when she flagged a Depp poser on MySpace and the imposter complained, MySpace deleted her account. Then, MySpace introduced its own celebrity verification service, leading Riggs to sue.

In July, we reported that Riggs' lawsuit against News Corp. had been revived by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

But Riggs wasn't fully satisfied with the outcome. In its ruling, the 9th Circuit reversed a lower court decision that dismissed her breach-of-implied-contract claim, meaning that she can now pursue News Corp. for stealing her idea. But the 9th Circuit threw out her negligence claim, meaning News Corp. won't be held liable for taking down her MySpace page.

Riggs is now asking for a rehearing on that negligence claim and has hired one of Hollywood's top plaintiff attorneys in Neville Johnson to represent her at the 9th Circuit.

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Meanwhile, we went back to examine News Corp's original arguments for upholding the decision to toss the negligence claim. The major argument? Protecting the sanctity of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Yes, that's the same statute that Twitter would hope to use for immunity in the event that the Murdochs sued the social media site for defamation, publicity misappropriation, trademark dilution, and misrepresentation.

In July, 2009, defending against Riggs, News Corp. spoke highly of Section 230 in giving the reasons why her lawsuit should fail:

"Section 230(c)(1) bars Riggs’s three negligence claims because they all are based on MySpace’s publication of third-party content provided by MySpace users, or its editorial decisions to delete such third party content...Riggs's claim is premised on her unsupportable assertion that MySpace could be considered the 'content creator' of a MySpace user profile created by an alleged Johnny Depp impersonator and of complaints made by that alleged impersonator."

News Corp. also pushed a legal theory why social media sites should be held greatly non-responsible for users' offending behavior:

"Even leaving Section 230 aside, the case law demonstrates that Appellees did not owe Riggs a legal duty to protect her from other MySpace users’ inaccurate profiles or to refrain from deleting her own MySpace profiles. In Doe v. MySpace, 474 F. Supp. 2d at 846, the court addressed claims by the parents of a fourteen year-old girl who allegedly met a nineteen year-old on MySpace and was raped by him when the two later met in person. The plaintiffs argued that MySpace owed a legal duty to protect their daughter from third parties such as the nineteen-year old and to institute safety measures on its website. The District Court rejected this argument and dismissed the plaintiff’s negligence and gross negligence claims 'because MySpace had no duty to protect [plaintiffs’ daughter] from [the nineteen-year old’s] criminal acts nor to institute reasonable safety measures on its website.'”

If Murdoch is going to argue that his company should not be held liable for pesky rapists on his platform, he can hardly argue that Twitter should have taken more care before verifying an individual who pretended to be his wife, right?

A decision on whether the 9th Circuit will agree to rehear Riggs' claims of negligence before a full panel of justices should be coming shortly. Regardless, the company is still facing ongoing legal action over the way it chose to exploit a celebrity verification system.


Twitter: @eriqgardner