Prosecution in teen suicide misguided

Reposted from San Jose Mercury News
December 8, 2008

by Larry Magid

What Lori Drew allegedly did to Megan Meier was despicable, but it doesn’t justify her conviction late last month for violating federal laws designed to keep hackers from invading computer networks.
Two years ago, Megan, a 13-year-old Missouri girl, hanged herself after her online friend “Josh Evans,” who had befriended her on MySpace, reportedly told her that he didn’t want to be friends with her and that the world would be better off without her. But Josh was in fact Drew, a 49-year-old mother of one of Megan’s former friends.

According to published reports, Megan had been mean to Drew’s daughter and Josh’s fake online relationship with Megan was a way for Drew to retaliate.

During the trial in Los Angeles, it was revealed that some entries made by Josh were typed by Ashley Grills, a then-18-year-old employee of Drew who was a witness for the prosecution and was not prosecuted.

The case has widely been characterized as a legal assault on cyberbullying, though it is extremely unusual for an adult to bully a teen. There is no reason to believe that Drew intended for Megan to kill herself, but the case against Drew is frequently cited as a warning to would-be bullies that their actions could bring severe consequences to both their victims and themselves.

From what I can gather, this is a case of a squabble between two 13-year-old girls and a mother who intervened in a terribly immature and inappropriate way. Adults are supposed to help young people peacefully resolve problems, not exacerbate them. This is not so much a case of cyberbullying as a case of bad parental intervention that had tragic consequences.

We need to fight against rude, deceitful and cruel behavior on and off the Internet. But that doesn’t justify a reinterpretation of anti-hacking laws to jail people who misuse Internet services.
The legal theory behind the prosecutor’s case is that Drew violated MySpace’s terms of service that prohibit misrepresenting your identity and harassing others. MySpace rules, which Drew says she hadn’t read, require that “all information you submit is truthful and accurate.” Clearly Drew lied. But so have a lot of other people.

She was prosecuted under Section 1030 of the U.S. Code, which was crafted to protect against unauthorized access to computer networks to cause damage, steal information or money or jeopardize national security. As far as I can tell, the law was not designed to prevent people from lying about their identity or otherwise violating rules on a publicly available online service. But that didn’t stop the jury from convicting Drew of misdemeanor violations. The jury refused to go along with the prosecution’s felony charges.

Based on this case, I’m one of millions of people who might also be guilty of a federal crime. I didn’t harass anyone, but I did violate MySpace’s terms of service by creating several fake identities with a variety of ages to test privacy features for teenagers while I was researching a book about MySpace in 2006.

And what about police officers who pose as teenagers to lure would-be predators? Should they have to request immunity from federal prosecution each time they engage in such a sting operation? I’ve even heard cases of law enforcement people advising kids to lie on their profiles to protect their privacy. Should they be indicted for conspiracy?

There are plenty of adults who lie online about their age. I have a friend who set up a profile on an online dating service using a false age, an old photograph and the exaggerated claim that he was “athletic.” A date might have cause to be disappointed or angry at him, but should she have the right to demand a federal prosecution?

Even Megan, with her mom’s knowledge, lied about her age. She was 13 and, at the time, MySpace required users to be at least 14. MySpace recently started allowing 13-year-olds to sign up.
The usual penalty for violating terms of service is to be kicked off the service. Had MySpace decided to go after Drew in court, it could have done so as a civil matter. But it’s not up to federal prosecutors to take it upon themselves to enforce a company’s online agreement with its members, especially if that company never asked for federal intervention.

I can understand why a jury wanted to punish Drew for what happened to Megan. But it’s not clear to me that putting Drew in prison on a hacking charge will help prevent cyberbullying or future tragedies.

What is needed is an educational campaign that makes bullying or harassing just as unacceptable as racial epithets or subjecting others to secondhand smoke. Cyberbullying is a real problem but it requires serious long-term solutions, not quick fixes and prosecutorial hijinks.

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