Should Parents Be Held Responsible For Their Child’s Online Behavior?

    November 18, 2012

The Internet is a big, dangerous place where kids can get in all kinds of trouble. That’s at least the line fed to us by various groups that advocate parents take a stricter approach in monitoring their children’s Internet usage. It’s a noble sentiment, but can parents be held responsible for their child’s actions online?

It’s an interesting question, and one that the German courts have been trying to tackle since 2007. At that time, a couple’s 13-year-old son had uploaded over 1,000 songs to various file-sharing networks. The record industry demanded that the kid’s parents pay the damages, but the parents refused and took the matter to court.

Do you think parents should be held responsible for their child’s online actions? Let us know in the comments.

According to TorrentFreak, the record companies argued in court that the parents could be held responsible for their child’s action because they didn’t fulfill their parental obligations. By that, the plaintiffs meant that the parents didn’t do enough to educate and monitor their child in the first place, which led to the aforementioned uploading of songs. The District Court agreed with the record companies and ordered the couple to pay €5,380.

The parents took the case to the Court of Appeals, but they found no friends there either. The court once again ruled that the parents didn’t do enough to stop their son’s file-sharing. This time, however, the court said the cause was that the parents didn’t install some kind of monitoring or blockade software that would have prevented their son from installing file-sharing software on his computer.

After almost five years of fighting, the parents took the case to the Federal Court. The highest court in the land overturned the two previous rulings, and freed the parents from any responsibility. In the ruling, the Federal Court said that the parents had already fulfilled their basic parental obligations by teaching their son right from wrong. It was assumed that part of that would mean telling their child that piracy is wrong. What’s more is that the court also ruled that the parents were not required to monitor their son’s online activities as the plaintiffs argued.

ZDNet pointed to a report from German newspaper Die Zeit that said the verdict in Germany may very well open back up a few older cases where the parents had settled over their child’s behavior. The parents’ lawyer also said that it will “bring clarity to hundreds of his clients.”

Do you agree with the court’s ruling? Was the court right to absolve the parents of any responsibility? Let us know in the comments.

Unfortunately, there’s not really a specific precedent we can draw upon in the US, but there are similar cases. The question is whether or not a network operator can be held responsible for the people using their network. What if a friend torrents an album or a film on a friend’s wireless connection? Can they be held responsible for their friend’s action by not doing enough to prevent the piracy?

Back in September, a California judge ruled that “negligence” can not be used to sue those whose network connections are used for piracy by others. In the ruling, the judge said:

AF Holdings argues that it seeks to hold Hatfield liable for ‘negligent maintenance of his residential network,’ which it asserts allowed a third-party to commit large-scale infringement of AF Holdings’ copyrighted works. Specifically, AF Holdings alleges in the complaint that Hatfield owed it a duty to secure his Internet connection to prevent infringement of AF Holdings’ copyrighted works. Thus, the entirety of this claim involves the allegation that Hatfield failed to take certain steps – in other words, allegations of non-feasance (as opposed to misfeasance). AF Holdings has not articulated any basis for imposing on Hatfield a legal duty to prevent the infringement of AF Holdings’ copyrighted works, and the court is aware of none. Hatfield is not alleged to have any special relationship with AF Holdings that would give rise to a duty to protect AF Holdings’ copyrights, and is also not alleged to have engaged in any misfeasance by which he created a risk of peril.

So, what does all this have to do with parents and responsibility? This case and others can serve as a precedent if a case involving a parent’s responsibility were to come up. It’s all deciding where the burden of responsibility lies. The courts have overwhelmingly decided that network operators can’t be held responsible, but what about parents? Following that same logic, should schools and other institutions in charge of our children be held responsible for their online actions?

These are questions that the courts and parents will have to struggle with as the Internet becomes more pervasive in our lives. Young children are getting better at using the Internet, but the concept of having to pay for something might not be instilled into their moral compass. Sure, they know its wrong to steal a physical item, but is piracy really theft? Conflicting messages from both sides of the argument will only lead to more children pirating content with their parents being none the wiser until they start getting six-strikes warnings.

It’s important to note that this question goes beyond piracy. Would courts accept arguments that children can’t be held responsible for other actions online, like cyberbullying? The public is more than willing to hunt down the adults involved in cyberbullying, but what about the children who take to the Internet to send hateful messages to others, at home and at school? Do we hold the parents and school responsible, or should the kids take some of the blame?

Should children be held responsible for their online actions? Or should the parents or other authority figures take the blame? Let us know in the comments.