A teenage boy has filed a lawsuit against the real-time picture chatting service Snapchat for showing adult content to minors.
Attorneys Mark J. Geragos and Ben Meiselas allege their client “John Doe,” a 14-year-old from Los Angeles, viewed offensive sexual content directed to him by Snapchat.
In the 32-page complaint, the lawyers say Snapchat’s Discover feature is to blame.
Launched in January 2015, Discover aggregates original content from a variety of sources including Buzzfeed and Cosmopolitan.
The lawsuit claims John Doe came across several articles with offensive titles such as “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.”
It also notes that the plaintiff came across a photo collage of Disney characters placed in sexually explicit conditions that was featured on Discover.
Geragos and Meiselas condemn Snapchat in the lawsuit for the use of such “dangerous” practices:
“By engaging in such conduct directed at minors, and making it simple and easy for users to ‘snap’ each other content from Snapchat Discover, Snapchat is reinforcing the use of its service to facilitate problematic communications , such as ‘sexting,’ between minors. Snapchat has placed profit from monetizing Snapchat Discover over the safety of children.”
They argue Snapchat has violated Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which requires computer services to notify customers of commercially available parental controls lest they receive a US $50,000 fine for each violation.
Social media networks that find themselves in a position similar to Snapchat’s usually argue they are a merely a platform by which customers share content, which usually shifts the blame to content producers.
But John Doe’s lawyers argue Snapchat directly inserts itself into the process of selecting Discover content for its users.
As Meiselas explained in a phone call to BBC News:
“Snapchat’s tentacles are all over this content. The layout, its format, what’s presented on a day-to-day basis - Snapchat is not a passive observer of this content.”
Even Snapchat has described Discover as something different than a social networking platform:
“Snapchat Discover is a new way to explore Stories from different editorial teams. It’s the result of collaboration with world-class leaders in media to build a storytelling format that puts the narrative first. This is not social media.”
As if in response, Snapchat released the following statement on Thursday:
“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.”
It looks like Snapchat is taking the route of presenting itself as a platform. It’s a logical move, especially now that First Amendment rights have long guaranteed the “editorial independence” of services like Snapchat. Whether John Doe’s lawyers can convince the court of something different remains to be seen, but it would surely be an uphill battle.
This is far from the first time that Snapchat has found itself making headlines for the wrong reasons, of course. Regular readers will recall that the service experienced a data breach earlier in 2016.