Commentary

Three Rapes Tied to Skout

A lot of people have raised concerns about personal security for users of location-based social networks, including the meet-and-greet or “mobile flirtation platforms” as I call them. It turns out those concerns were quite justified, in light of reports that three teen and pre-teen Skout users are claiming they were raped by older men posing as teens on the service.

According to the New York Times, the men approached the minors -- two girls, ages 12 and 15, and a 13-year-old boy -- through Skout’s forum for younger users, which is supposed to be limited to teens ages 13-17. The men, ranging in age from 21 to 37, posed as teens to gain access to the service and then arranged meetings with the victims who were then sexually assaulted.

It’s not clear if Skout could be held liable in connection with these cases, as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act provides immunity for interactive service providers from liability for illegal activity by users, as discussed by MediaPost’s Wendy Davis in an informative column here. But even if Skout manages to avoid legal action, the incidents are obviously bad publicity for location-based services which could discourage new users and jeopardize ad support.

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Skout clearly takes these incidents seriously: the company is suspending the teen forum for the time being, and new security measures are in the works. Nonetheless personal safety concerns may be holding back growth for location-based services among adults as well.

Back in 2010 I wrote about a Webroot survey which found 49% of female users of location-based social networks say they worry about a stalker using their information, compared to 32% of men. And of course the threat of certain kinds of physical violence and intimidation is simply greater for women in general: In 2008, the U.S. Department of Justice estimated that women were the victims of 182,000 rapes or sexual assaults, compared to 40,000 for men, and in 2005-2006 there were 20 cases of stalking per 1,000 adult women, versus seven per 1,000 adult men.

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