Once upon a time, Snapchat was a simple app. You took a picture, you sent it to a friend, and it disappeared shortly after.
Nowadays, it’s a messaging app, a video sharing app and a news app. A face-swapping, dog-masking revolution in online communications.
But is it indecent? And are children being put at risk?
That’s what’s at the centre of an intriguing lawsuit made public on Thursday.
It focuses on the Discover function of Snapchat, a section in which publishers are falling over themselves to be seen.
It’s here where content made exclusively for Snapchat (in portrait orientation) comes from the likes of the Daily Mail, Vice, Buzzfeed and others*, and users are highly encouraged to read through stories and watch videos from those publications.
Stories such as “10 things he thinks when he can’t make you orgasm” from Cosmopolitan magazine.
That’s just one example given in the lawsuit. There are others that are too rude to be published here – which I guess speaks to the complaint. If it’s unsuitable for the BBC website, should minors be able to see it on Snapchat?
(If curiosity calls, the full complaint document lists a few more examples, republished here by The Verge.)
The class-action complaint argues Snapchat is routinely pushing content like this without warning or consideration over the age of the user.
“Millions of parents in the United States today are unaware that Snapchat is curating and publishing this profoundly sexual and offensive content to their children,” reads the lawsuit, filed by “John Doe”, a 14-year-old from Los Angeles.
State law means he has been made anonymous, although we know he apparently has “good grades”.
In US law, a class-action lawsuit allows one party – in this case “John Doe” – to represent a potentially much larger group of people who could be compensated if Snapchat was to lose or settle the case.
Publisher or platform?
Snapchat on Thursday came straight out with a brief statement.
“We are sorry if people were offended,” a spokesman wrote in an email.
“Our Discover partners have editorial independence, which is something that we support.”
When it comes to controversy for social networks, this is very much familiar territory, the old publisher/platform debate that all sites must face at some point.
It’s normally wise for social networks to argue, as they often do, that they are a platform. Doing so offers a highly effective defence in cases where users of any kind post material that upsets people for whatever reason.
It’s a defence that basically says what publications on Snapchat do is up to them.
Phrases like “editorial independence” emphasise that, much like having a free press, allowing publishers complete control is a tried and tested Good Thing.
If something is amiss or offensive – don’t come knocking on Snapchat’s door. It’s just the platform, not the publisher. Complain to the magazine instead.
But that shouldn’t be the case here, argued Ben Meiselas, an attorney with Geragos and Geragos, the law firm taking on the suit.
“Snapchat’s tentacles are all over this content,” he told me in a phone call on Thursday.
“The layout, its format, what’s presented on a day-to-day basis – Snapchat is not a passive observer of this content.”
‘Not about censorship’
He pointed to the way Snapchat described Discover when it launched the feature in January 2015.
“It’s the result of collaboration with world-class leaders in media to build a storytelling format that puts the narrative first,” the company said.
“This is not social media.”
It’s that collaboration that makes Snapchat responsible, Mr Meiselas argued. Furthermore, the Discover tab on the app is highly curated and controlled by Snapchat, unlike, say, a newspaper’s tweet on Twitter.
He said he believed Snapchat has been falling foul of the US Communications Decency Act of 1996. It enforces a number of key obligations, one of which is offering prior warning if potentially offensive content is about to be delivered.
“It’s not about censorship.” Mr Meiselas said.
“When you target minors the way Snapchat does, you have certain obligations to children and parents when you open the door to this exclusive club that’s curated by Snapchat.
“It’s not an attack that could be enjoyed by an adult audience. This isn’t attacking content providers, it’s not attacking the freedom of the press.”
I put Mr Meiselas’ view to Snapchat, but a spokesman said the company wouldn’t be expanding on its short statement.
Snapchat is only four years old. It has around 150 million users, and it’s fair to say it’s the app of choice for young people.
In its short history, the company has gone through the kind of motions all significant start-ups seem to face.
They’ve had a lawsuit about whose idea it was – the firm settled with forced-out co-founder Reggie Brown in 2014.
They’ve had a big money offer – chief executive Evan Speigel said he turned down a multi-billion dollar bid from Facebook.
They’ve had a couple of security threats and probes into their policies over privacy.
And so this lawsuit is somewhat of a rite of passage – the inevitable reaction to a network that has become so pervasive and influential over young people… and in doing so, has achieved millions of dollars in revenue.
The lawsuit is asking for $50,000 per violation.
As I mentioned, it’s class-action, and so a win for 14-year-old John Doe could pave the way for many Snapchat users to be compensated. A big cost to Snapchat, to both its pocket and reputation, should they lose.