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Video chat site Omegle shuts down after 14 years — and an abuse victim's lawsuit

An archive image shows how the Omegle website appeared in early 2014. That year, a young woman says, Omegle paired her with an older man who exploited her starting from when she was 11 and lasting several years.
Wayback Machine/Screenshot by NPR
An archive image shows how the Omegle website appeared in early 2014. That year, a young woman says, Omegle paired her with an older man who exploited her starting from when she was 11 and lasting several years.

Omegle, a random video chat site that began with the ideal of connecting strangers but one that's also long been accused of enabling sexual predators, has ceased operations, according to its founder, Leif K-Brooks.

In a lengthy farewell message, K-Brooks said the website he founded in 2009 aspired to a "platonic ideal" of allowing people to share ideas and form new relationships. But he also admitted that his creation had a darker side.

"There can be no honest accounting of Omegle without acknowledging that some people misused it, including to commit unspeakably heinous crimes," he said.

Those crimes resulted in numerous claims against Omegle. In one high-profile case, a young woman sued the website in 2021, accusing it of matching her in a chat when she was 11 years old with a man who sexually exploited her.

The young woman, identified only as A.M., sought $22 million in damages in her lawsuit. Omegle was shut down days after the two sides agreed to settle the lawsuit.

Messages to Omegle, K-Brooks and his attorneys were not returned before this story published.

When contacted by NPR, the woman's attorney, Carrie Goldberg, declined to offer a response, saying the legal team would "let the shutdown speak for itself!"

Here's a brief guide to the controversial site and its demise:

Omegle came to life 14 years ago

K-Brooks says he founded Omegle as an 18-year-old who was then living with his parents in Vermont. Its tagline was "Talk to Strangers!"

Omegle offered to pair people from around the world in text chats (and, a year after launching, through video). It quickly caught on as an internet novelty — and a venue for men to make unwanted sexual advances. Most troubling, the site was also known to pair underage kids with adults.

K-Brooks incorporated Omegle in Oregon, where he lived from 2010-2014. He had recently been operating the site out of Florida. And while his farewell note suggested he had people working as moderators, a statement provided to the Oregon court where A.M. filed suit suggested that if anyone other than K-Brooks monitored and/or moderated the site, they did so as volunteers.

"I have been Omegle's sole employee since its inception," K-Brooks said in court documents filed this summer.

For either a sole proprietor or a team, moderation of the site would be onerous, as Omegle's website has long drawn intense interest and thrives on quickly made pairings. Earlier this year, it drewmore than 70 million visits in a month.

Omegle and similar sites have weathered legal challenges by invoking free-speech immunity conferred by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The statute has traditionally given broad protections to online companies deemed to be "interactive computer services" from liability related to their users' words and actions, labeling them platforms rather than publishers.

In 2018, the law was modified to help prosecutors and civil lawsuits target online sex traffickers for "knowingly assisting, supporting or facilitating" crimes. The change prompted Craigslist to remove personal ads in the U.S.

K-Brooks shuttered Omegle after settling lawsuit

The young woman identified as "A.M." sued Omegle two years ago, saying that in 2014, when she was 11, the chat service matched her with a man named Ryan Scott Fordyce, who was then in his late thirties.

In court papers, A.M. refers to Fordyce as "Omegle Predator." Indeed, in 2021 he was sentenced to prison in Canada for exploiting A.M. and other girls, after police found thousands of illegal photos and videos on devices in his home in 2018.

In their first contact, A.M. and Fordyce exchanged only text messages on Omegle, but they then connected on Kik and other outside platforms. Over the next three years, Fordyce "forced A.M. to take and send naked photos and videos of herself engaging in sex acts of his choosing," according to the lawsuit.

A.M. said Fordyce threatened her, saying he would release pictures of her — and possibly bring about her arrest. He also pressured her to try to recruit other underage girls on Omegle, she said. The ordeal lasted while she was ages 11 to 15.

In court documents, A.M. said she was seeking damages from Omegle for a litany of debilitating conditions: "severe emotional distress, Post-traumatic stress disorder, panic attacks, self harm, sexual injury, suicidality, fear of commitment, inability to trust, inappropriate approval seeking, guilt, shame, anxiety, paranoia, nightmares, dissociation, hypomania, impaired familial relationships, challenges with intimacy, eating disturbances, psychogenic seizures, muscle tension, and feelings of terror."

The lawsuit targeted Omegle's design

In her suit, A.M. accused Omegle of product liability, saying the site was defectively designed and lacked proper warnings.

"The sole warning for kids on Omegle's website states '[y]ou must be 18+ or 13+ with parental permission and supervision to use Omegle,' " the lawsuit states, adding that despite those warnings, Omegle did not require users to enter a birthdate or certify a parent's consent.

The lawsuit also accused Omegle of causing her to be sex trafficked, and of profiting from that crime.

"Omegle's product is designed perfectly to be used the way Fordyce used it – to procure children anonymously and without a trace," it states.

Responding to the claims, Omegle said A.M. voluntarily provided her contact information on the otherwise anonymous service, and it noted that while their initial connection was made during a text chat on the site, Fordyce used other means, such as email, to acquire child pornography from A.M.

"Plaintiff aims to redirect the harm caused by Fordyce — and overlooked for years by her parents — at Omegle," the company said in court filings.

The two sides were able to come to an undisclosed agreement to settle the case, leading Judge Michael W. Mosman to dismiss the case in federal district court in Oregon.

Founder says his site faced challenges on 2 fronts

In his farewell message, K-Brooks portrayed himself as fighting two main battles: to detect crimes and prevent potential abuses; and to keep his website online in the face of critics who said his website's key feature — anonymity — was incapable of protecting its youngest and most vulnerable users.

"In recent years, it seems like the whole world has become more ornery," K-Brooks said.

Describing an increasingly intolerant atmosphere, he added, "One aspect of this has been a constant barrage of attacks on communication services, Omegle included, based on the behavior of a malicious subset of users."

Without naming his critics, K-Brooks stated, "The only way to please these people is to stop offering the service."

He compared shuttering the site to closing off Central Park because crimes are sometimes committed there. But in the end, he said, the stress and expense of keeping the site online were overwhelming.

"Operating Omegle is no longer sustainable, financially nor psychologically," K-Brooks said. "Frankly, I don't want to have a heart attack in my 30s."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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