Snapchat Sued for Exposing Kids to Media Partners' "Sexually Offensive Content"

Snapchat_Sad_Ghost - H 2015

Snapchat_Sad_Ghost - H 2015

Snapchat might no longer be the choice app for sexting, but a new lawsuit accuses the sharing service of an "an insidious pattern and practice of intentionally exposing minors to harmful, offensive, prurient and sexually offensive content, without warning minors or their parents that they would be exposed to such explicit content."

The putative class action was filed on Thursday in California federal court by Mark Geragos, the same attorney who is a popular talking head on the media circuit. He's now representing a John Doe and 150 million other Snapchat users in a complaint that alleges violations of the Communications Decency Act as well as other laws.

Specifically, the legal action takes issue with Snapchat Discover, by which users come across content from "media partners" including Buzzfeed, Vice and MTV. According to the complaint, Snapchat helps curate the content and "exercises direct control over its editorial content and what is published to the consumer." The lawsuit adds that Snapchat's "terms of service" lack warnings about offensive content on Snapchat Discover.

When minors swipe through Snapchat Discover, continues the complaint, they see articles like "10 Things He Thinks When He Can't Make You Orgasm," "I Got High, Blown, and Robbed When I Was a Pizza Delivery Guy" and "F#ck Buddies Talk About How They Kept It Casual."

Minors are also allegedly exposed to random graphics like these:

"While adults should be free to consume any of this material, and may themselves find it to be humorous and witty, the fact that Snapchat does not differentiate content offered to its minor users and adult users is problematic, and ultimately a violation of Federal and State consumer law," states the lawsuit. "Compounding matters is that adult content and images appear to be directly marketed and advertised to minors based on the use of cartoons, childhood relatable images and very young looking models."

As for the John Doe plaintiff, he is said to have used Snapchat Discover on July 1 and come across a Buzzfeed article which had pictures of his favorite Disney characters. "However, something was obviously wrong and different with these images," adds the complaint.

The photo compilation was called, "23 Pictures That Are Too Real If You've Ever Had Sex With A Penis," and allegedly perverted these Disney characters. Of course, there's an image in the lawsuit:

The Communications Decency Act was a law enacted after the "Great Internet Sex Panic of 1995," as some commentators have put it, and while much of the CDA was struck down on constitutional grounds including provisions requiring ISPs to filter, and while the CDA is probably more famous these days for providing immunity for digital sites on third-party content, this lawsuit appears to suggest that provisions related to parental control protections are still operative and that parents must be empowered to make decisions regarding their kids' access to objectionable content. It's also claimed that Snapchat is committing negligence.

Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University, says that the lawsuit attempts a couple of theories that are novel — including the testing of notification obligations under the CDA, although he's unsure whether the federal law being addressed really has a civil remedy for violations. "Overall, this lawsuit is like a 1990s throwback when Congress and the states tried to make websites screen minors from offensive content," he says. "We haven't seen many such lawsuits since then because the First Amendment and Section 230 have wiped them out. Maybe these plaintiffs have found a way around that, in which case the lawyers will seem brilliant. If not, this will be just the latest failed crazy attempt to hold websites liable for third party content."

The lawsuit demands an injunction that would require Snapchat to warn users about adult content and an order that provides parents the ability to block such content. It also is demanding disgorgement of hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising revenue plus compensatory damages and more.

A spokesperson for Snapchat responds, "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."

Here's the entire complaint: