Omegle, a free video and text chat service notorious for connecting strangers, has agreed to wrap up its activity and close for good by the end of this year as part of a legal settlement with a female user from Oregon who sued the company in 2021.
Omegle faced a 22-million-dollar lawsuit in the United States, which was filed in 2019 over child sex exploitation. In 2014, the then-11-year-old plaintiff encountered a Canadian pedophile on Omegle, who blackmailed her into digital sexual slavery.
The website, known for being used to link minors with sexual predators, admitted to having a flawed design, which facilitated the abuse of thousands of children. The victim told the court that she was coerced into explicit content creation by an older man she met on the platform when she was just 11.
Omegle’s founder Leif K-Brooks, who launched the service in 2009, when he was 18, issued a statement expressing his regrets over the court decision but maintained that the right to bodily integrity must be unalienated.
Being himself a survivor of a childhood rape, he launched the service to help people seek new contacts and tie friendships rather than encourage illegal activities.
“I was acutely aware that any time I interacted with someone in the physical world, I was risking my physical body. The Internet gave me a refuge from that fear. I was under no illusion that only good people used the Internet; but I knew that, if I said “no” to someone online, they couldn’t physically reach through the screen and hold a weapon to my head, or worse.
I saw the miles of copper wires and fiber-optic cables between me and other people as a kind of shield – one that empowered me to be less isolated than my trauma and fear would have otherwise allowed,” the founder said.
K-Brooks acknowledged the platform's dual nature as an anonymous communication tool that could be used for both good and evil, but described the court ruling as an attack on the internet and freedom to chat online.
The court pointed to a technical issue - the platform's direct facilitation of connections between minors and sexual predators at the click of a button. Omegle's roulette-style pairing allowed predators to continuously shift through individuals until they found their targets.
Unlike other social apps, its instant pairing of strangers on camera was its distinctive feature. The judge highlighted that the platform could have taken measures to prevent matches between minors and adults before inappropriate content was shared.
Although the platform introduced AI and human moderation, the number of complaints and the amplitude of Omegle video records with child porn surfacing in the Darknet overwhelmed the founder’s arguments.
The permanent closure of Omegle was negotiated between the platform and the survivor to avoid an imminent jury trial, lawyers told the media.
Omegle gained popularity during the 2020 lockdowns due to COVID-19. However, its appeal was marred by the platform's association with both casual conversation for the lonely and a space for sexual exploration.
The platform's history was plagued with issues of sexual abuse. Thousands of images and videos of sexually explicit acts with minors had been leaked to child porn communities in the Dark web – an overlay network within the Internet that can be accessed with specific software.
While many acts were consensual or volunteering, others were the results of blackmailing by adult viewers.
At least 600,000 cases of child exploitation on Omegle were documented in 2022, placing this service it among the highest reported sites, surpassing even Facebook, Google, Instagram, and WhatsApp, according to a report published by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.