When one thinks of cybersecurity issues that can create legal problems, the mind often gravitates towards criminal intrusion by hackers, failure to protect data by someone entrusted to do so, or recently, allowing or creating disinformation in social media. However, the term can also extend to creating a safe area for the user when they are on the internet. This includes making sure objectionable content can be filtered, allowing free speech to be protected but only when not compromising one’s safety, and eliminating predatory and bullying type behavior by malevolent users.

Finding the Liability Line

I watched a very disturbing series on Hulu the past couple of weeks entitled “The Girl from Plainville”. It is based on a true story of events surrounding and leading up to the tragic suicide of an 18-year-old boy in which his 17-year-old girlfriend was found guilty of contributing to by sending text messages encouraging him to harm himself. The case raised legal issues as to criminal culpability of the instigator. Where should the courts draw the line? While the incident described above was not a social media-bullying episode as laws protect one against, I read a case filed last week that took a different approach and will pose the issue: should social media be civilly liable for cases in which a member of the plaintiff’s family harms themselves?

Parents Sue Facebook

In a wrongful death action last week filed in the United States District Court, Eastern District of Wisconsin, the plaintiff DD sued Meta, Inc (the parent company of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat) asking that Meta be held liable for the 2015 suicide of their son, CJ, a minor at the time of his death. Essentially the lawsuit has three basic themes:

1) Meta does nothing to protect the minor when allowing them to sign up through verification of their or any other user’s identity nor do any of the waivers apply to minors signing up.

2) Meta is strictly liable for an algorithm that targets users, especially minors, through advertisements and not charging them for use, causing the user to be susceptible for addictive behavior, which in turn goes unchecked as the minor user falls deeper and deeper in the preoccupation of social media.

3) There are no warnings put forth by Meta (ala in the gambling industry) about the perils of addictive behavior that social media can cause.

Surgeon General Warning

The complaint in the case goes into little detail of the specifics of what CJ might have observed while on social media or what may have been said to him. There is a specific reference at the outset of the complaint to an advisory made by the United States Surgeon General’s office in December. It said:

In these digital public spaces, which are privately owned and tend to be run for profit, there can be tension between what’s best for the technology company and what’s best for the individual user or for society. Business models are often built around maximizing user engagement as opposed to safeguarding users’ health and ensuring that users engage with one another in safe and healthy ways. . . . Technology companies must step up and take responsibility for creating a safe digital environment for children and youth. Today, most companies are not transparent about the impact of their products, which prevents parents and young people from making informed decisions and researchers from identifying problems and solutions.

United States Surgeon General’s Advisory December 7, 2021

COngress Gets Concerned About Social Media

There has also been comments made in congress recently of a similar nature over the concerns of social media addiction. The video game industry has been the target of similar lawsuits in the United States over the past twenty years or so, with little success primarily because the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders hasn’t officially declared video gaming to be an addictive disorder. Liability trends of video game makers and social media will be interesting to watch in the future. From a cybersecurity perspective, legal liability of any internet platform will have repercussions in terms of content regulation and user behaviors.

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Joe Jabara, JD, is the Director, of the Hub, For Cyber Education and Awareness, Wichita State University. He also serves as an adjunct faculty at two other universities teaching Intelligence and Cyber Law. Prior to his current job, he served 30 years in the Air Force, Air Force Reserve, and Kansas Air National Guard. His last ten years were spent in command/leadership positions, the bulk of which were at the 184th Intelligence Wing as Vice Commander.