Another Suit in the MySpace Case?

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It has been an unlikely legal wrangle from the start. First, a 14-year-old Austin, Texas, girl and her mother filed a $30 million lawsuit against, where the teenager claims she met a man who assaulted her. Now, the college student charged with the sexual assault also is considering suing the popular social networking site.

The defense attorney for Pete Solis, the 19-year-old Texas community college student charged with sexually assaulting the girl dubbed "Julie Doe" in her lawsuit, told TIME that if the Texas courts accept the premise that MySpace is liable because the two met there, then his client also has a claim, since the alleged victim falsely portrayed herself on the webiste as 15 years old.

"He's been, in effect, just as much a victim — if not more," says Adam Reposa, the attorney for Solis, who is facing up to 20 years in prison on charges of second degree felony sexual assault. Since the lawsuit against MySpace also names Solis as a defendant, Reposa said he will "cross-file" and also sue MySpace and its owner, News Corporation. "MySpace wasn't there when they went to Whataburger. MySpace wasn't there when they went to the movie and MySpace wasn't there when they climbed in the backseat," Reposa said. "Meeting on MySpace — if that alone is enough, then we can make the same claim for damages."

The young girl at the center of what could be a groundbreaking online liability suit was able to set up a MySpace listing in 2005 when she 13 years old, despite the website's rules prohibiting anyone under 14 creating a posting. Solis said the two exchanged e-mails for a month and then swapped cellphone numbers. They agreed to meet on a Friday in mid-May, went out for a hamburger, a movie and then drove to an Austin apartment complex parking lot, where the alleged assault took place.

The case against Solis has not been presented to a grand jury and Reposa is hoping to get the charges against his client reduced. Solis has admitted to police that he had sex with the girl, but he assumed she was older, according to Reposa. The girl's attorney, Adam Lowey , said his now 14-year-old client has suffered "horrific" harm because of Solis' actions and MySpace's "lax security policies."

Though MySpace has not commented specifically on the lawsuit, its security director, Hemanshu Nigam, a former federal prosecuctor, said this week the company "remains dedicated to a multi-pronged approach that also involves education and collaboration with law enforcement, teachers, parents and members." Even before the landmark suit was filed, the company had been criticized by several state attorneys general for its failure to put in place stricter verification procedures.

The debate over MySpace's culpability has been raging on local talk radio and blogs this week, with many Austin residents saying it is up to parents to monitor their children's Internet activities. Meanwhile, the company has announced new security policies that will kick in next week, limiting adult access to personal information for 14- and 15-year-olds; MySpace users who are 18 or over could no longer request to be on a 14- or 15-year-old's friends' list unless they already know either the youth's e-mail address or full name. But experts question whether social network sites can prevent posters from lying about their age. The proposed changes "are inadequate because they lack any age verification and leave the minimum age too low," said Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. "They fail to raise the age threshold to 16 and take steps to verify age — as I and other attorneys general have repeatedly urged. They are a mirage of protection."