But the case adds to a growing wave of lawsuits challenging tech companies to take more responsibility for their users’ safety – and arguing that past precedents should no longer apply.
The companies have traditionally argued in court that one law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, should shield them from legal liability related to the content their users post. But lawyers have increasingly argued that the protection should not inoculate the company from punishment for design choices that promoted harmful use.
In one case filed in 2019, the parents of two boys killed when their car smashed into a tree at 113 mph while recording a Snapchat video sued the company, saying its “negligent design” decision to allow users to imprint real-time speedometers on their videos had encouraged reckless driving.
A California judge dismissed the suit, citing Section 230, but a federal appeals court revived the case last year, saying it centered on the “predictable consequences of designing Snapchat in such a way that it allegedly encouraged dangerous behavior.” Snap has since removed the “Speed Filter.” The case is ongoing.
Congress has voiced some interest in passing more-robust regulation, with a bipartisan group of senators writing a letter to Snap and dozens of other tech companies in 2019 asking about what proactive steps they had taken to detect and stop online abuse.
Some tech experts note that predators can contact children on any communications medium and that there is no simple way to make every app completely safe. Snap’s defenders say applying some traditional safeguards – such as the nudity filters used to screen out pornography around the Web – to personal messages between consenting friends would raise its own privacy concerns.
Hany Farid, an image-forensics expert at University of California at Berkeley, who helped develop PhotoDNA, said safety and privacy have for years taken a “back seat to engagement and profits.”
The most notable – the Earn It Act, which was introduced in 2020 and passed a Senate committee vote in February – would open tech companies to more lawsuits over child-sexual-abuse imagery, but technology and civil rights advocates have criticized it as potentially weakening online privacy for everyone
The fact that PhotoDNA, now more than a decade old, remains the industry standard “tells you something about the investment in these technologies,” he said. “The companies are so lethargic in terms of enforcement and thinking about these risks … at the same time, they’re marketing their products to younger and younger kids.”
Farid, who has worked as a paid adviser to Snap on online safety, said that he believes the company could do more but that the problem of child exploitation is industry-wide.
In a separate lawsuit, the mother of an 11-year-old Connecticut girl sued Snap and Instagram parent company Meta this year, alleging she had been routinely pressured by men on the apps to send sexually explicit photos of herself – some of which were later shared around her school
“We don’t treat the harms from technology the same way we treat the harms of romaine lettuce,” he said. “One person dies, and we pull every single head of romaine lettuce out of every store,” yet the children’s exploitation problem is decades old. “Why do we not have spectacular technologies to protect kids online?”
The girl said the man messaged her randomly one day on Instagram in 2018, just before her 13th birthday. He fawned over her, she said, at a time when she was feeling self-conscious. Then he asked for her Snapchat account.