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Cyberbullying & Internet Law: Can we control what others post online?

February 11, 2013

It was a frightening ordeal for a Carlsbad family when their teenage daughter, Baileigh Karam, ran away after a video showcasing a bully physically attacking her went viral on January 11, 2013. Baleigh had been missing for a week before she was found safe at a friends’ home. While she was missing, her family and other local parents of bullying victims began to realize the widespread effects of cyberbullying. The video broadcasted Baileigh’s attack, and a witness on Facebook posted it within minutes of the attack.

What concerned Baileigh’s mother, Karen Karam, was that the video promulgated the devastating effect of the incident on Baileigh, sparking her run-away attempt. Karen fought immediately with those investigating the teen’s disappearance and Facebook representatives to have the video removed from the social networking site. While waiting for Facebook to remove the video, Karen knew her daughter would be reading the horrible comments her peers shared, comments glamorizing the fight. In response, Karen says “It’s a very ugly world sometimes on Facebook.”[1]

            In the wake of the video, shared with Baileigh’s network of friends and family members, local parents wondered what rights they may have in controlling bullying material on Facebook. With over two-thirds of U.S. teenagers online and using social networking sites, it is to be expected the Internet brings an opportunity to send hurtful material.[2] What recourse do parents, such as Karen Karam, have against the posters of harassing content? What is the site’s liability regarding such posted material?

In an interview with Professor Aaron Schwabach, of Thomas Jefferson School of Law, he gave his opinion on Facebook’s protection from his vast experience studying Internet and property law. In the case of Zeran v. America Online, Inc. the Court held that Internet Service Providers gain immunity for the wrongs committed by their users, through the protection of the Communications Decency Act and United States statute 17 U.S.C. § 512.[3] Because the transmission of cyberbullying content is initiated by the direction of a person other than Facebook itself, the site’s liability for relief is negated[4]. Professor Schwabach states, “Practically-speaking, it would be impossible for Facebook to monitor all material on its network. But what most parents do not know, if you report the material to Facebook, they will remove that content.” Many parents do not realize Facebook provides this option. Sites like Facebook do not want to perpetuate bullying, but they cannot completely control what users post. Unfortunately, if material like the Karam video, is re-transmitted to different person’s networking profile, it must be reported again for its removal. This can become tedious, but it does give an option for parent’s to decelerate cyberbullying.

            Internet law is primarily unknown to many parents and teens, and the issues of cyberbullying are continuously developing. In some cases, the damaging consequences of cyberbullying do not end at the removal of its content. Parents may still seek recourse against those persons that produce and transmit bullying material. Professor Schwabach states, “Although it will remain a proof-of-fact issue, parents able to prove the identity of persons transmitting such material may affect the damages sought in a case, especially if the alleged person encourages the effects of bullying, suicide, or engages in cyberbullying through fraudulent misrepresentation.”[5] Even most schools are held powerless to control student Internet activity. Many claimed that Baileigh’s school should be liable for the incident involving two of their students. Unfortunately, unless a bullying incident takes place on school grounds, school administrators are generally not liable. School administrators may have a duty to instill a safe atmosphere at school, but it may also be impracticable for a school to monitor all material students post online. In the end, parents are left with minimal help to control Internet material intending to bully their children. Reporting it may help remove it, but only if parents are proactive in protecting their child’s Internet saf

[3] Zeran v. America Online, Inc. 129 F. 3d. 327 (1997).

[4]  Id. and 17 U.S.C. § 512 Limitations on Liability Relating to Material Online

[5] U.S. v. Drew. 259 F.R.D. 449 (2009).