Voiceover: This is The Takeaway with MHP from WNYC and PRX in collaboration with GBH News in Boston.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Nearly 25 years ago, researchers at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania conducted a national survey of parents. They learned that more than 2/3 were deeply concerned about the harm their children might experience from being connected online. It's a fear that has not abated in the intervening years.
More recent studies by academic and corporate researchers repeatedly show that caregivers are terrified of the ways young people might be harmed as a result of online encounters. While data show that the overwhelming majority of child abuse is suffered at the hands of people who children know, the fear of online predation is not without merit.
In a recent investigation from Mother Jones, freelance journalist, David Alm, detailed the online platform Omegle and the evidence of widespread child predation allegedly facilitated by the site.
David Alm: Omegle was founded in 2009 by a man named Leif K-Brooks, who at the time was a University of Vermont freshman. He started it as an internet platform. Essentially, it predates Chatroulette, a lot of people have heard of Chatroulette, but it's essentially a similar concept. Where you go on, and you're matched with a random person around the world, and it bills itself as a cool way to meet strangers.
The company's tagline is, "The internet is full of cool people, Omegle lets you meet them." That's essentially who started it, where it came from, and the concept, is billed as very innocuous and a nice way to-- it's like a video pen pal arrangement where people are just connected and bringing people together. That's the ostensible purpose.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What did the data tell us about who uses the site? That's a fairly long time to have been around to have predated even the roulette chat. Who's been on it during these years?
David Alm: I had never heard of Omegle until March of last year. That's partly because of my age. I'm 47. I found that most people I've spoken with don't really know what it is if they're over 30. People under 30 have heard of it. Who uses it and what kind of data we have, that's hard to come by because the people who use it are anonymous, and there is no login information, there's no sign-up required, you don't have to enter anything about yourself.
The people who run the site-- and I couldn't even really get clarity on how many people are involved, but from what I understand from a lawyer who's bringing a lawsuit against Omegle, only a handful of people, at most maybe two or three. The anonymity is billed as an asset. If you're on Omegle, nobody knows who you are, and this is considered, or it's touted as something that will keep you safe.
There's very little data on who their users are. My research and my reporting would indicate that it's primarily young people, adolescents, who go on as a party trick, or as a dare, or as just out of boredom. The website skyrocketed in popularity during the pandemic due to people stuck at home. It's primarily adolescents and grown men, to put it bluntly. The grown men are going there for sexual purposes.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Can you just also help me to understand how much money this site makes? This is a free site, right?
David Alm: Yes.
Melissa Harris-Perry: There's not even login. Where does the revenue come from?
David Alm: I shared several emails with the founder, Leif K-Brooks. Again, regarding the team behind Omegle, he could be the only person who works there, as far as I can tell. He told me that the revenue primarily comes from selling ads. They also apparently run a cam site, but he also told me that they don't have any affiliated sites, but there is a site called Camegle that you can pay for connections with various people. He told me that they sell ads.
If you go on Omegle, you'll see that a good number of these ads are to adult websites and pornography. It's very unclear how much money the site brings in. Estimates that I've read online would indicate, in some cases, over $2 million a year. If there's indeed a very small team, and if Leif K-Brook is the only person, that's a lot of profit, because there's very, as far as I can tell, very little overhead, if any.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Stay with us. We're going to continue this important conversation as soon as we return. It's The Takeaway.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We're still with David Alm, freelance journalist, and contributor at Mother Jones, and we're talking about his recent investigation of Omegle, the online video chat platform. I just want to give a quick heads-up for this next part of the conversation because David and I are going to discuss some examples of the abuse alleged in his report. We just wanted to give you a little bit of early warning on that.
The men who use Omegle to sexually exploit children have been the subject of numerous federal investigations. You've already talked to us a bit about this anonymity, the challenges of even knowing who's using it. Can you tell me about these federal investigations relative to the men who use this site?
David Alm: Sure. If you go on the DOJ website and type in Omegle, it'll draw up several dozen cases involving the website in one form or another. They all involve men who are adult men who have contacted children on Omegle and used the platform to induce them to expose themselves or to send them nude selfies either exposing themselves on Omegle or going off Omegle and using a different platform, whether it's Snap, or Gmail, or what have you.
These men are caught, usually, by virtue of a parent intercepting an exchange. A child might send an email to a grown man that they met on Omegle, and the parent will intercept it, contact the authorities. In some instances, to give credit where it's due, Omegle does report some instances of child sexual abuse. It's not completely turning a blind eye, but the scope of the problem far extends Omegle's ability to tackle it and to actually handle it, given that it continues to persist and the site's now been around for 14 years, and they don't have a significant enough moderation team in place to actually be able to control it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Has the company itself actually been the subject of federal investigation, or simply the individuals making use of it?
David Alm: The website has been free of federal investigation due to Section 230. It's always been able to claim Section 230 lack of responsibility. Just to clarify what that means, Section 230 is essentially a clause written into the Communications Decency Act that was written in 1996, so 27 years ago, that absolves communications platforms of content distributed on those communications platforms. It's like saying AT&T is not responsible if I phone in a bomb threat at a school.
I made a phone call, I committed a crime, but AT&T is not liable for that. This is the defense that a lot of tech companies use when we talk about disinformation, we talk about conspiracy theories, trying to influence an election.
You can say, "Well, Twitter isn't responsible, Facebook isn't responsible for X, Y, or Z." Omegle tries to make the same claim, "We're just a communications platform. We put person X with person Y in different countries, and we just let them have a conversation. If a crime is committed, that's not our problem." The site is currently the subject of a $22 million lawsuit brought against Omegle by a woman in Brooklyn named Carrie Goldberg, who has built an entire practice since 2014 when she founded her law firm basically going after tech companies that facilitate stalking, that facilitate and enable predation, revenge porn. Any kind of tech-enabled abuse like that is her primary area of practice.
Back in 2018, she was hired by a 19-year-old woman who, from the age of 11 to 14, was ensnared in a situation, essentially digital sexual slavery, by a man in Canada who was in his late 30s at the time, and he, for over a three-year period, had her doing basically whatever he told her to do, and he threatened to expose her, and she would get arrested if she ever told anyone. He even had her enlist friends to perform for him and his friends and do horrendous things.
Carrie Goldberg, at the end of 2021, brought a $22 million lawsuit against Omegle. Her attack was not to go after Fordyce or any of the other men who have committed crimes on Omegle, but rather to go after Omegle for creating a product that is intrinsically flawed to the point where it would pair a 38-year-old sexual predator with an 11-year-old girl. It's a product liability claim.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Are there solutions?
David Alm: There are currently some efforts at the federal level to pass legislation that would hold platforms like Omegle, but also Facebook, Gmail, any other platform liable for facilitating crimes against children. The primary legislation is called the EARN IT Act of 2022, and it was introduced back in January of 2022 by Lindsey Graham, but it has almost equal number of Republican and Democratic co-sponsors.
Essentially, its stated purpose would be to hold platforms accountable for any kind of crime like this that we're talking about. To do that, they would require records be kept. They would require that identifying information would be stored. It would be impossible to go on a site like Omegle anonymously. That's one effort. Then there are also counter efforts.
There are people out there lobbying to stop the EARN Act of 2022 because they see it as a fundamental threat to our privacy. If you can monitor and record and store data on all forms of online communication, then who's to say that we're not all going to be just surveilled all the time? It's a very dicey area in terms of legislation, but that right now is the most viable solution to it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: David Alm is a freelance journalist and contributor at Mother Jones. David, again, thanks so much for taking the time to be with us today.
David Alm: Thank you very much, Melissa. I really appreciate you having me on.
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