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1/18/2007
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MySpace Sued In Sexual Assaults On Five Girls

The lawsuits accuse MySpace and its parent company of negligence, recklessness, fraud and negligent misrepresentation.

MySpace has been sued by four families who claim the popular online social network failed to do enough to help prevent adult members from contacting and later sexually assaulting their daughters. Four of the five girls -- two were sisters -- were given alcohol, drugs, or both; and one was also kidnapped.

Five lawsuits, one for each victim, were filed Wednesday in Los Angeles County Superior Court, accusing MySpace and its parent company News Corp. of negligence, recklessness, fraud and negligent misrepresentation. The suits do not specify damages, but the plaintiffs would be asking for millions of dollars.

"We'll be seeking damages in the millions, but we won't know the specific amount until we get closer to trial," Adam J. Loewy, a partner in the law firm Barry & Loewy LLP, Austin, Texas, said Thursday. Barry & Loewy is working with Arnold & Itkin LLP of Houston in representing the girls.

The assaults occurred in late 2005 and early 2006 after men contacted the girls, who were 14 and 15 years old, on the popular online teen hangout. In each case, the attackers talked the girls into meeting them and then sexually assaulted them.

Six men were arrested in the attacks. Two pled guilty. One is serving his sentence in a Texas prison, the other in New York. The other men are awaiting trials.

The four families, who are from New York, Texas, Pennsylvania and South Carolina, are accusing MySpace of failing to take steps to protect minors, despite available technology. Since the attacks, MySpace has added security measures to protect young teens, including preventing adult strangers from contacting members under 16. MySpace members must be at least 14 years old, but there's nothing stopping children from lying about their ages when registering.

Legally, MySpace committed fraud and was reckless by marketing the site as safe, but failing to do everything it could to protect children, Loewy said. "They represented certain things to the public about safety on the site, and our clients relied on those representations and got hurt very badly," the lawyer said. "That, as a matter of law, is negligent and fraud."

MySpace officials were not immediately available for comment.

The suits are not the first filed by Loewy. His firm filed a similar suit in June 2006 in the sexual assault of a Texas girl. That case is pending. Despite an increasing number of security measures, MySpace remains under fire by law enforcement and child advocates. Police say dozens of MySpace teens have been molested, some murdered, by people who first contacted them through the site, according to news reports. A group of 33 state attorneys general are considering legal action if MySpace doesn't increase its age limit to 16, and find a way to verify ages. The site claims technology doesn't exist to make that possible.

On Wednesday, MySpace said it was developing software that parents could use to determine whether their teenagers were using the site, and to verify the ages of the minors. Code-named "Zephyr," the desktop software would be available by the summer.

To protect the privacy of MySpace's young members, the tool would not let parents read their children's email, a feature that Loewy said should be added. "In my opinion, they believe that if they give parents the power to monitor their kids' actions, then the kids won't go to the site, and that would affect their (MySpace's) profits."

In attacking MySpace's privacy arguments, Loewy said minors do not have the same rights to privacy as adults. "The courts have held that the rights to privacy is different for children."

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