City Attorney Dennis Herrera sued MeetMe in Superior Court in 2014, claiming the Pennsylvania-based platform made it easy for bad guys by collecting users’ “geolocation data,” which the company passed along to users – often mobile users – who could see who was nearby.
Herrera said the practices exposed children to serious safety risks.
“Sadly, these risks aren’t hypothetical. Dozens of children nationwide have already been victimized by predators who used MeetMe to coerce minors into meeting,” Herrera said.
In 2013, a Fresno man was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting a minor he met on MeetMe. A man near Sacramento separately used “apps including MeetMe to send text messages and photos of his genitals to underage girls in order to first strike up a sexting relationship and then try to meet for sex,” Herrera claimed.
Yet another California man posed as a 16-year-old boy to meet and have sex with two girls who were 12 and 15, the lawsuit said.
MeetMe did not verify user ages or check user email addresses against sex offender registration lists, a common practice with most social networking companies, Herrera said.
“In short, anyone – including sexual predators, stalkers and other criminals – can sign up to use the MeetMe app and can input any birth date they want, and once they do, MeetMe enables them to browse through photographs, locations and other personal information of teenagers who are in close physical proximity,” the lawsuit stated.
Herrera said a quarter of the site’s 40 million users were between the ages of 13 and 17. MeetMe does not allow users younger than 13 to sign up.
“An average teenager creating a MeetMe account would not understand from the tangled web of ambiguous and misleading statements MeetMe provides that s/he is allowing MeetMe to collect geolocation and mobile device identification data, share that information with other unidentified users and send that information to third party contractors,” Herrera claimed.
Parents on the website Common Sense Media called MeetMe a “creepy social network that features racy photos and suggestive talk.”
On Wednesday, Herrera said MeetMe agreed to a one-time payment to the City Attorney’s Office of $200,000 to resolve all claims for damages, attorneys’ fees or other costs.
The website pledged to “simplify its privacy terms by drafting a new policy written at a ninth-grade reading level, displaying all privacy settings on one screen and providing regular ‘privacy check-ups’ to apprise users of their settings and explain how to modify their choices,” an official report stated.
MeetMe will not identify locations of minor teens more specifically than their city and state, and will not display their proximity to others users more narrowly than “within one mile.” Limited location sharing for minor teens will now default to “off.”
Product changes are to be implemented within 90 days.
Herrera applauded the revisions as “groundbreaking.”
“MeetMe showed leadership to resolve this litigation that’s worthy of its status as a market leader,” Herrera said. “Company officials thoughtfully and responsibly considered the violations we alleged under California law, and ultimately aspired to remedies even beyond those we sought.”
He continued, “Our settlement includes groundbreaking steps to protect the safety and privacy of minor teenagers, just as we’d hoped. But MeetMe deserves credit for also seeing the opportunity to expand and better explain privacy protections for the benefit of all of its users, of all ages. It’s an approach that will serve consumers well, and hopefully also set an industry standard for all social networks at a time when they are increasingly accessed through mobile devices.”
Litigation against MeetMe was funded almost exclusively by prior civil recoveries won by Herrera’s office rather than taxpayer dollars, because the case alleged violations of California’s unfair competition law.
California voters amended that law in 2004 to require that civil penalties recovered by public prosecutors be used exclusively to enforce consumer-protection laws.
MeetMe said in a statement that it views the outcome as “positive.”
“MeetMe takes the safety of our users very seriously. We work cooperatively with law enforcement across the country and worked collaboratively to address the concerns of the San Francisco City Attorney,” the company said.
“We believe the outcome is a positive one for the company and for our audience and look forward to continuing to innovate and improve our service.”