When Tragedy Begets Tragedy
Nearly two years ago, a vicious practical joke ended in tragedy when 13-year-old Megan Meier committed suicide after receiving hateful messages via MySpace — messages posted by the mother of a former friend and others, posing as a 16-year-old boy. Now, the method used to bring the perpetrators to justice threatens to create even more damage.
According to criminal charges filed against her and her accomplices, Lori Drew and one or more others created a profile on social networking site MySpace in order to lure the girl into believing she was interacting with a 16-year-old named Josh. The conspiracy went so far as to post a picture of the fictitious "Josh", entice the girl with flirting and compliments, and even have the boy move away in order to traumatize her. Eventually, "Josh" sent Megan a message saying that the world would be better without her, at which point she committed suicide. Ms. Drew and others have now been indicted on charges of conspiracy and illegal access to a computer, the first time such a charge has been used against cyberbullies.
The latter charge, though, is causing concern among legal experts, who are concerned that the prosecution's creative application of what is generally considered an anti-hacking statute may create more problems than it solves. The basis for the charge is the prosecution's claim that by providing a false name and age while registering with MySpace, the conspirators illegally accessed MySpace's computers, as their actions were prohibited by the site's terms of service.
While Ms. Drew's actions are reprehensible and she should be brought to trial, stretching the definition of illegal access to include TOS violations places millions of internet users in danger of becoming cyber-criminals, as the use of pseudonyms is a common practice online. If Drew is convicted, it will set a precedent for pressing federal charges against anyone who utilizes a pseudonym online, as well as any other action that violates the terms of service of any website. Experts and activists are concerned by the free speech implications — as the First Amendment has been held to allow anonymous activities online — as well as potential due process concerns, as users may not necessarily know their actions are potentially criminal.
Our sympathies go out to Megan's family, which has been forced to endure two years of suffering waiting for Drew to be brought to trial, and we hope that justice will be done. At the same time, we hope that it will be done in a way that reflects the crimes committed, and will not render millions of innocent internet users as criminals.