Omegle, the video and text chat site that paired strangers together to talk, ultimately shut down as part of a legal mediation with a female user who sued the company, claiming its defective and negligent design enabled her to be sexually abused through the site.
Omegle’s chatting service was shut down Wednesday, just a week after it settled a court case with a plaintiff identified as A.M. Her lawsuit, filed in 2021, alleged that she met a man in his thirties on Omegle who forced her to take naked photos and videos over a three-year period. She was just 11 when it began in 2014.
“The permanent shutdown of Omegle was a term negotiated between Omegle and our client in exchange for Omegle getting to avoid the impending jury trial verdict,” Carrie Goldberg, an attorney who represented A.M., tells WIRED. Attorneys for Omegle did not respond to a request for comment on the settlement. Emails to Omegle were not returned.
Omegle, founded in 2009, regained popularity during 2020 as Covid-19 lockdowns kept people at home. That popularity was, at least in part, driven by it becoming a place where lonely people could chat and also a place for sexual exploration. But its very design was different from other social apps: It instantaneously paired strangers on camera.
“Virtually every tool can be used for good or for evil, and that is especially true of communication tools, due to their innate flexibility,” Leif K-Brooks, Omegle’s founder, wrote in a note announcing the site’s end. “The telephone can be used to wish your grandmother ‘happy birthday’, but it can also be used to call in a bomb threat. There can be no honest accounting of Omegle without acknowledging that some people misused it, including to commit unspeakably heinous crimes.” K-Brooks’ note did not mention the settlement in his statement, but blamed the closure of Omegle on unspecified “attacks” against communication services.
There’s a flaw in K-Brooks’ argument: The telephone doesn’t connect children and teens directly to sexual predators with the click of a button. Omegle’s model allowed sexual predators to sign on and click through a roulette of people, continuously jumping from one to another until they were face-to-face with who they were looking for.
Omegle has a long, problematic history of sexual abuse issues. In August, a man was sentenced to 16 years in prison after admitting to chatting with approximately 1,000 minors on Omegle and recording many of them undressing. The recent settlement with A.M. stems from a $22 million lawsuit which claims the man who abused her had saved thousands of sexually exploitative images of children, including some of A.M. In 2022, a CBC reporter spent time on Omegle and found that the majority of the people she matched to chat with appeared to be men who were either naked or off-camera.
In 2022, there were 608,601 reports of child exploitation on Omegle to the nonprofit National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s CyberTipline. Of all the sites the center tracked, only Facebook, Google, Instagram, and WhatsApp ranked higher.
In the US, social platforms are often protected by Section 230, a broad act that shields them from liability for the content their users post. But the judge in A.M.’s case found last July that Omegle’s design was at fault and it was not protected by Section 230: It could have worked to prevent matches between minors and adults before sexual content was even sent, the judge said.
K-Brooks wrote that he took a “good Samaritan” approach “to implement reasonable measures to fight crime and other misuse.” That included “basic safety and anonymity,” as well as “a great deal of moderation behind the scenes” that used both AI and human moderators. “Omegle punched above its weight in content moderation, and I’m proud of what we accomplished,” he wrote.
Omegle ultimately was brought down by a lawsuit from a sexual abuse survivor. But abusive content will still circulate around the web, and it shows how far away a long-term solution is. “We’ve got to ask ourselves some pretty good questions about how we even permitted this for so long,” said Signy Arnason, associate executive director of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, a charity focused on reducing sexual abuse and exploitation of children. “If we don’t address things at the regulatory level, we’re just waiting for another site to backfill what Omegle did.”