WARNING: This story contains disturbing details about child sex crimes and graphic sexual content.
Omegle, a social media website designed to randomly connect strangers, is trying again to put an end to a U.S. lawsuit against the company for a case involving a Manitoba man convicted of internet luring and child porn distribution.
In 2021, an American woman only known as A.M. sued the website in Oregon for $22 million, alleging when she was 11 years old, it paired her up with a Brandon, Man., man in his late 30s who went on to sexually abuse her.
The civil lawsuit says over a three-year period the man forced A.M. to send naked photos and videos of her engaging in sex acts of his choosing, and sometimes made her perform for him and his friends. The woman also alleges her abuser forced her into trafficking other children for him on Omegle.
“The Omegle predator trained A.M. to go onto Omegle to recruit other children for him to exploit,” the lawsuit alleges.
The Brandon man pleaded guilty in 2021 in Manitoba’s Court of Queen’s Bench to internet luring and distribution of child pornography. He was sentenced to 8.5 years, minus time served. CBC is not naming him to protect the identity of his victims.
The lawsuit alleges Omegle is responsible for what happened to A.M. because the website is a flawed product “designed perfectly” to “procure children anonymously and without a trace.”
Omegle LLC is now seeking summary judgment or a partial summary judgment, which is when a judge decides the outcome of a case without it having to go to trial.
The company filed a motion for summary judgment in the case last month stating Michigan product liability law should apply because A.M. was a resident of the state.
The motion argues that under Michigan law, product liability claims have a three-year statute of limitations, and since A.M. failed to bring a timely suit against Omegle, plaintiff damages would be capped at $280,000, no punitive damages are available and the trafficking claim should be dismissed.
This isn’t the first time Omegle has tried to put an end to the lawsuit. It previously filed a motion to quash the suit under a section of an American law that commonly shields big tech from these sorts of liabilities.
The law — Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — was created in 1996 to protect companies from being responsible for third-party content on platforms such as online message boards. The judge denied the request.
Omegle also argues in its court filings that A.M. exchanged written messages with the man through its website for 15 minutes then gave him her contact information so the man could directly contact her. That is how the man obtained photographs and videos of her. Omegle says “something [the man] otherwise could not have done because Omegle users are anonymous.”
Omegle reports rising: Canadian Centre for Child Protection
Last year, a CBC News reporter investigated the website. In a one-hour period on the website, she was matched with over two dozen people, most of whom were men, either naked or off camera. At least five of the men were visibly masturbating.
The Canadian Centre for Child Protection says it has seen an increase in reports of children being exposed to sexual violence on Omegle. It said compared to 2021-2022, such reports have risen by 122 per cent.
“Upon log in, sometimes you’re meeting someone, an adult male, with their genitals exposed right off the hop,” said Catherine Tabak, senior manager of Cybertip.ca, the Canadian Centre’s tipline for reporting the online sexual exploitation of children.
WATCH | What CBC found on Omegle:
The centre says of the more than 180 reports that Cybertip received, more than 120 involved concerns about someone communicating with a child for a sexual purpose through Omegle.
“We know that offenders are using this site to record surreptitiously kids engaged in sex acts, and then they’re using that content in the trade of child sexual abuse material,” said Tabak.
She said the Canadian Centre receives a report about Omegle every second day.
Another concern is the age of children being exposed. Tabak says kids as young as eight years old are being exposed to inappropriate sexual material and behaviour online.
“It really emphasizes that this is what we do in society. And so we see a lot of teens growing up now with having unrealistic expectations of what intimate sexual relationships look like … that extreme exposure to sexual content has kind of caused that,” said Tabak.
WATCH | Critics warn of dangers of Omegle:
Tabak says we can no longer solely rely on parents to keep kids safe online and it’s time for government to take action to regulate the online space.
“These companies have had their own free will in terms of how they’re operating. And it’s just not working for us,” said Tabak.
“There’s always this conversation about privacy and freedom of speech, and that should never trump the protection of kids online.”