FourSquare, Loopt, Twitter, and even Google Buzz are testing the intersection between social networking online and real world, location-dependent activities. For example, you can use Loopt to see which of your friends are nearby, or you can earn points and badges on FourSquare by visiting locations around you. Even some companies are starting to specialize in helping advertisers prepare location-aware advertisements, which has created some (humorous) responses by the public.
But location-aware social networking has a dark side as well. Podcaster Israel Hyman was robbed after he posted a tweet on his Twitter feed saying he had arrived safely in Kansas City. The problem was that he did not live in Kansas City.
So it may not come as a surprise that a new site is trying to raise awareness of this problem. The site – available at PleaseRobMe.com – aggregates postings from various social media sites that involve the poster being away from home. The result is a laundry list of people who are not in their homes, and where those homes are located.
According to the sites’ operators:
The danger is publicly telling people where you are. This is because it leaves one place you’re definitely not… home. So here we are; on one end we’re leaving lights on when we’re going on a holiday, and on the other we’re telling everybody on the Internet we’re not home. It gets even worse if you have “friends” who want to colonize your house. That means they have to enter your address, to tell everyone where they are. Your address.. on the Internet.. Now you know what to do when people reach for their phone as soon as they enter your home. That’s right, slap them across the face.
As an attorney, my mind immediately jumps to what level of liability PleaseRobMe.com may face for its work. After all, it could be assisting would-be robbers with their nefarious activities, which can raise aider/ abettor liability.
Professor Rebecca Tushnet raised the interesting question of whether the Communications Decency Act (47 U.S.C. § 230) would insulate PleaseRobMe.com from liability. As discussed on this blog in the past, the CDA (as 47 U.S.C. § 230 is commonly called) immunizes interactive computer service providers from liability arising out of the speech of another. The immunity also extends to reposting speech by another (see, e.g., Barrett v. Rosenthal).
However, reposting immunity can be lost under two exceptions. First, under the Roommates.com decision, CDA immunity can be lost if the interactive computer service provider contributed to the speech in a material way. Second, CDA immunity can be lost if the information that was reposted was illegal (see, FTC v. AccuSearch). Here, it would be hard to argue that the information being reposted by PleaseRobMe.com is illegal. But the Roommates.com material contribution exception is less clear. Does data aggregation materially contribute to the individual data points that make up the aggregate? In other words, is a fact (e.g., Drew is in the office) changed in some way if it is presented within a list of other people who are (or are not) in certain places? If so, then CDA immunity may be lost.
Certainly, this question is difficult to answer, and I anticipate that if a case is brought against PleaseRobMe.com, it will turn upon the facts at hand. One can only hope that if a case is brought against PleaseRobMe.com, it will not be a situation where bad facts make bad law.