WARNING: This story contains details involving the sexual abuse of a child
The closure of Omegle, a video chat service that randomly connected strangers, came soon after the settlement of a U.S. civil suit accusing the platform of pairing an underage girl with a southwestern Manitoba man now convicted of sexually abusing her and other children.
Leif K-Brooks, who founded Omegle in 2009 at age 18, announced the shutdown in a lengthy statement posted to the site this week, saying its operation had become unsustainable both financially and psychologically.
A dark side of the U.S.-based platform had emerged, said Brooks, adding “there can be no honest accounting of Omegle without acknowledging that some people misused it, including to commit unspeakably heinous crimes.”
Omegle faced significant scrutiny over the years for becoming what critics called a breeding ground for child pornography and other abuse. The BBC reported that the platform has been mentioned in more than 50 cases against pedophiles in the last two years.
The site’s shutdown arrived about a week after Omegle settled a 2021 civil lawsuit filed by an American woman, known as A.M., who said she was 11 years old in 2014 when Omegle connected her with a man in his late 30s from Brandon, Man., according to court records.
The $22-million suit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Portland, Ore., alleged the man forced her to send naked photos and videos of herself engaging in sexual acts over a three-year period. CBC News is not naming the man in order to protect the identity of his victims.
“We are relieved that as part of the resolution of our client’s litigation, Omegle agreed to terminate its site forever,” said Carrie Goldberg, an attorney with the New York-based law firm representing A.M., in a Thursday email to CBC News.
Police searched the man’s home in 2018. They found thousands of images and videos depicting child sex abuse, including hundreds of pictures and videos of A.M.
In 2021, the man pleaded guilty to criminal charges of internet luring and distribution of child pornography in a Manitoba court. He was sentenced to eight and a half years, minus time served.
The charges involved several underage girls, but it’s not clear if he met them all on Omegle.
Omegle attempted to have A.M.’s lawsuit thrown out in 2021, citing the U.S. Communications Decency Act — a law that commonly shields big tech from responsibility for third-party content on platforms such as online message boards.
The judge denied the motion, saying the case was not about the content exchanged between A.M. and the man, but the product’s design, which connected minors with adults.
Last year, CBC News investigated the website. In one hour, Omegle matched a reporter with over two dozen people, most of whom were men, either naked or off camera. At least five of the men were visibly masturbating.
Omegle’s simple design allowed users to type in a keyword to find someone with similar interests, or leave it blank, before deciding if they wanted to text or video chat live with a stranger.
Omegle users did not require an email or username to log in before being instantly connected with a randomized person identified only as “Stranger.”
The platform also did not require age verification up until last year, which consisted of a checkbox asking users if they were above 18, the Canadian Centre for Child Protection said in a Thursday news release.
“We know that’s really meaningless. Anyone can click a checkbox,” Signy Arnason, associate executive director of the centre, told CBC News.
Over the years, she says the Winnipeg-based centre had discovered numerous videos of child pornography on the dark web which appeared to have originated on Omegle.
The Manitoba connection to Omegle’s demise proves online child exploitation takes place all over the world, she said.
“It’s been devastating what’s been happening to kids on this site.”
‘Waiting for the next Omegle’
Arnason said her centre observed dark web users express their “sadness and depression over losing Omegle” while speculating what website to use next to gain easy access to children.
That included one who said Omegle’s shutdown interrupted his communication with an 11-year-old whom he had introduced to pornography, according to Arnason.
Arnason says the centre is troubled by future platforms to come, as online exploitation of children has only grown in recent years.
Parental vigilance is not enough to prevent online child sex abuse, and regulations for platforms like Omegle need to be introduced in Canada, she said.
“In the offline world, [we don’t let] kids randomly connect with adult strangers,” she said, yet, “we’ve completely abandoned those principles online.”
“Without proper regulations, we’re waiting for the next Omegle, so to speak, to kind of backfill this environment.”
Arnason says Omegle’s closure was long overdue, and should not have taken civil litigation to bring it down. The site should not have been available in the first place, she says.
“We’ve got to be asking ourselves some bigger questions about how … we’ve offered up this almost haven for offenders to go after kids in such a predatory way.”