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Don't shoot the message provider

Updated: 2010-12-08 09:02

By Patrick Mattimore (chinadaily.com.cn)

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A court in East China's Zhejiang Province ruled Friday that Tencent Computer System Co. Ltd, the owner of QQ, a web messaging service, was partially liable for the death of a Shanghai University student who agreed to a suicide pact via instant QQ messages.

The 20-year-old student answered an invitation on QQ from a 22-year-old man who was sending "suicide invitations" to the public with his cell phone number. The two men met in Lishui in June, rented a hotel room, and burned charcoal in their room in order to asphyxiate from the fumes. But the elder man had a headache and left the room while the 20-year-old stayed and died a few hours later.

The parents of the university student alleged that Tencent, as a network service provider, had a responsibility to delete or disable the content of the "meeting to suicide" message in a timely manner, and the company's failure to do so contributed to the death of their son. The deceased’s family lawyer suggested that the Internet was "becoming an accessory to suicide."

The court apparently agreed and found Tencent responsible for 10 percent of the compensation, or $8,347.

The court further found that the man who instigated the pact should pay 20 percent ($16,675) of the total compensation and that the deceased was 70 percent at fault for causing his own death.

The case is one of first impression and the ruling against Tencent sets a questionable precedent. The logical extension of the decision is that communication providers will now be forced to oversee private communications.

The questions raised by the court's decision are chilling and beg analogous questions about the extent to which communication facilitators are responsible for what happens in the forums they provide. Should a cell phone provider be liable for criminal acts agreed upon by parties using their phones? Can private mail delivery services be held accountable if a party using their services instigates foul play via the mail? Should a movie production company be held liable for copycat behaviors stemming from failures to appropriately censor movie content?

Once we start down that blame path, we can expect to pay a dear price in terms of our loss of privacy. That's a path we should not be willing to take.

When a suicide occurs it is tempting to cast a wide net of blame. Parents who lose a child to suicide are sympathetic figures. It is a natural and human reaction to want to help ease their suffering by directing blame outward. In this case, though, it is no more logical to scapegoat the message service provider than it would be to find fault with the hotel, the student’s university, or indeed, the parents.

Patrick Mattimore is a fellow at the Institute for Analytic Journalism and lives in Beijing.


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