Expert: MySpace Suicide Charges “Problematic”

No one, we imagine, wants to sympathize with Lori Drew, the 49-year-old woman who, in 2006, posed as a teenage boy, courted, and then rejected, Megan Meier, after which the 13-year-old committed suicide. Nonetheless, said one activist, the charges brought forth last week—one count of conspiracy and three of accessing a computer without authorization—are nothing to celebrate. Historically, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act has been used to prosecute hackers. This will be the first time it has been used to prosecute someone who violated a site’s Terms of Service (MySpace’s terms require users to provide truthful information, and refrain from abusing or harassing fellow members, soliciting information from anyone under 18, posting pictures of others without their consent, and promoting false information). Drew, whose daughter had a falling out with Meier, posed as “Josh Evans,” a fictional 16-year-old (using a teenager’s photo without his consent) and told Meier the world would be a better place without her. In doing this, she violated all of these terms. The problem, said Jennifer Granick, civil liberties director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is that if this case becomes a precedent, anyone who violates a site’s TOS will be vulnerable to federal prosecution under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. “It puts the force of criminal service behind these Terms of Service which are barely legal contracts in terms of legal enforcability,” Granick said. “You have a First Amendment right to speak anonymously. Many people use Internet services with false names for a variety of reasons, from whistle blowing, to wanting to communicate anonymously, to not wanting to be tracked. That’s something that millions of people do every time they’re using the Web.” And yes, you should be worried. Even if you’re one of millions providing false information not for the sake of harming others but for protecting yourself, you should be afraid, warned Granick. “To have a broad law that says, ‘Everything you do is criminal and trust us to only prosecute when it’s something everyone will agree on’ is a methodology that’s open to abuse and discrimination,” she said. “People who express points of view we don’t like, or belong to social or racial categories we don’t like, will disproportionately bear the brunt of those prosecutions.” To complicate the issue, Missouri’s harassment laws, which forbid people from using “coarse language offensive to one of average sensibility,” do not apply to this particular case. Federal harassment laws specifically apply to phone networks. Lori Drew’s crime, then, isn’t a crime, per se. According to Granick, though, the idea of bending existing harassment laws to apply to Drew sets another dangerous precedent, this one threatening our First Amendment right to free speech. “I would be more in favor of a cyberbullying statute because these walk a fine line between free speech and criminal behavior,” she said.

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