Police: Best Buy Let Porn-Poster On Its Network. No Hacking Involved

South Carolina police have now confirmed that the 29-year-old man arrested and charged with using a smartTV display at Best Buy to show store visitors a sexually oriented video was encouraged by Best Buy to post the video, in the same way that the store encourages all customers to test the new line of high-resolution TVs. This did more than give this guy his first police record. It set in motion a complicated series of legal problems for Best Buy, along with other retailers trying to sell Wi-Fi-accessible televisions.

Statements from police and Best Buy have been correct, but so devoid of context as to make them entirely misleading. A police statement said, for example, that suspect Robert Holden "used a personal electronic device to stream a pornographic video to a display television."

What the statement didn't say—but police have now confirmed—is that Holden transmitted those images by using the mechanism that Best Buy put in place to encourage customers to post their own photos and videos to the sets, to demonstrate the impressive screen resolution and clarity of the smartTVs. "He didn't hack into the set or anything like that," said Greenville Police Officer A.T. Urps, referring to Holden. "He thought it would be funny."

What's not so very funny are the lawsuits being prepared—on behalf of people in the store who saw the two adults engaged in extensive friendliness sans attire. (The phrasing we have to use to avoid spam filters.) Although those lawsuits have serious hurdles to prove meaningful monetary damages in an age where many broadcast and cable shows leave little to the imagination, they have a strong case against Best Buy.

For example, was it reasonable to anticipate that some customers, given direct unsupervised access to display any pictures or videos they choose to the store, would display inappropriate videos? Also, there were reportedly several such showings of adult-themed content on different days. Holden himself is accused of showing such videos on February 11, and then coming back on February 12 and showing it again. (Technically, it might have been a different adult video. That said, if the accusations are true, Holden deserves the misdemeanor charge for being dumb enough to come back and do it again. Smart TV, dumb customer. On the other hand, for getting away with it one day and having the chutzpa to come back and try again the next day, he probably deserves a reduced sentence.)

Getting back to the legal troubles, would it have been so difficult to force customers to go through a Best Buy employee or manager to display images/videos? The employee would have to look at the material first, and then—if it's acceptable—the employee accesses a password-protected area to share the images.

As a practical and a legal matter, there are issues with the associate-approval method.As a practical and a legal matter, there are issues with the associate-approval method. Given that the smartTVs are designed to receive direct wireless transmissions from consumer-grade mobile devices (smartphones, tables, laptops, etc.), restricting access may be futile. From a legal standpoint, though, at least Best Buy wouldn't have been making it ultra-easy. Best Buy's facilitation of this impromptu bachelor party entertainment is what may cause legal headaches.

There's an even more frustrating legal problem with the associate-approval concept: It might have the opposite of the intended impact. What if a Best Buy employee saw these inappropriate images and decided to approve the display anyway? At least a customer self-serve porno portal leaves the Best Buy attorney wiggle room to argue that the chain had no idea someone would do this. If an associate approved it, Best Buy would be in an even weaker legal position.

It's similar to the legal problems of people who host parties where alcohol is served. In a series of so-called host liability decisions, the question of whether hiring a professional bartender puts the homeowner host in a better or weaker legal position was argued. Paying for a pro bartender makes the host look more responsible and more caring. That drink-mixer could watch for signs of guests who have had enough and cut them off, while also alerting the host to confiscate car keys of some guests.

But if an accident happened, the bartender's hiring could make a jury hold that homeowner to a higher standard. That professional should have known that the guest was drunk and stopped him or her. A party where the alcohol was all self-serve might endanger guests more, but it could better enable the homeowner to plead ignorance. If he didn't know about it, he couldn't be expected to have done anything about it.

Some of those issues also exist for retailers trying to sell smartTVs. There's also the ultimately simple resolution: Do as TV displays have done for years and simply show the identical ultra-high-quality video on all of the sets and let customers compare that way. It may not be as impressive, but it's a lot safer. Then again, the whole point of the program is to boost sales. The idea of seeing your personal videos on this TV—to better judge how it will look in your living room with your content—is a compelling reason to drive down to your local Best Buy.

The legal debate is not entirely different than the debate over reader reviews and whether retailers should approve them before publishing.

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