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Facebook settles out of court in unique revenge porn case

It doesn't set a precedent, but it's close.
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Stephen Lam / Reuters

Facebook may have left itself wide open to whole heap of legal headaches after it recently reached an out-of-court settlement in a revenge porn case. Between late 2014 and early 2016, the naked picture of a 14-year-old girl from Northern Ireland was repeatedly shared to a "shame" page on Facebook. Police are said to have failed to act fast enough to build any kind of case, so the girl, who said she was blackmailed into sharing the image in the first place, sued the alleged perpetrator and Facebook instead. After exhausting efforts to get the case dismissed from the High Court, Facebook negotiated a confidential settlement with the teen, which is thought to be the first time anyone has achieved the slightest success in a suit of this kind.

Facebook has been named as the co-defendant on several publicized revenge porn cases, but nothing has come of them. The social network argues, and judge's agree, that it's merely a platform and not responsible for what bad actors post to its pages. Revenge porn only became a specific criminal offense in Northern Ireland in early 2016, almost a year after it was recognized in other parts of the UK. It carries a maximum jail term of two years. Facebook wasn't charged under these laws, of course. The teen sought damages for misuse of private information, negligence and breach of the Data Protection Act. Her lawyers argued that while Facebook took down the images when notified, it did not do enough to stop the person responsible from reposting.

Since Facebook settled, this case doesn't set any kind of legal precedent, nor does the social network shoulder any blame. The company told the BBC that "for legal reasons, we are only at liberty to state that no judgement has been rendered in this case and that there has been no determination of any actual or potential liability for Facebook." But settling, as anyone that's ever watched a courtroom drama knows, is as good as admitting defeat. For anyone considering a similar civil suit against Facebook, Twitter or others, there's now an example of someone sorta winning. Not a precedent, but something close.

Even worse for Facebook, the case calls the social network's self-policing efforts into question once again. Naturally, Twitter has a revenge porn problem too, and both platforms are taking steps to combat it. Facebook may have actually avoided this particular lawsuit had one of its latest tools -- which uses photo matching to stop images being republished -- been available earlier. In Australia, you can even send nudes to Facebook to proactively block if you think there's a chance they might get shared. That might seem just strange, but when you're scanning for revenge porn, fake news, hate speech, harassment and everything in between, any heads-up is welcome.

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