Snapchat sued over ‘sexually offensive’ content in its Discover channels

The proposed class action claims Snapchat's Discover section exposes minors to offensive content

Snapchat is being sued for exposing minors to sexually offensive content on the Discover feature it offers in tandem with media partners.

The messaging and multimedia sharing service, which was at one point at the center of a controversy over surreptitious “sexting” by users with disappearing text and images, is now being charged with engaging through Discover “in 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.”

To sign up for Snapchat, users must claim they are at least 13 years old, which is the same minimum age set by social media rivals like Facebook.

The proposed nationwide class action was filed Thursday by a 14-year-old boy, identified as John Doe, through his guardian and mother Lynette Young. It claims a putative class of about 150 million users of Snapchat, and alleges willful and intentional violations of provisions of the Communications Decency Act, which among other things requires internet services to notify customers that parental control technologies are available to limit access to material that could be harmful to minors.

“Snapchat’s ‘Terms of Service,’ which are generally entered into directly by minors who even lack the capacity and consent to enter into contracts in the first place, includes no warnings about the offensive content on Snapchat Discover,” according to the complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

The complaint also provided what it described as a random and fractional sample of content posted on Snapchat Discover from the period of July 1 through July 3, 2016, which it said "demonstrates substantial content intentionally targeted at minors." One exhibit, for example, is an article headlined: “23 Pictures That are Too Real If You’ve Ever had Sex with a Penis,” which couples sexually explicit text with screenshots from Disney cartoons.

"We haven't been served with a complaint in this lawsuit, but we are sorry if people were offended,” a Snapchat spokesman wrote in an email. “Our Discover partners have editorial independence, which is something that we support."

Courts have generally not held Internet companies liable for material posted on their services by third parties.

But the complainants disagree, stating that Snapchat is not an idle or passive observer of content published by third-party publishers on Snapchat Discover, but is involved “in all aspects and all decisions made regarding content that is ultimately published.”

The lawsuit states that the Communications Decency Act provides for a civil penalty of US$50,000 per violation with each day counting as a separate violation, indicating that the damages sought are likely to be large. The suit also aims to compel Snapchat to proactively warn parents and children about the content it curates or to develop basic access controls and filters that differentiate minor users.

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