maybe I’m the only person in the world that hadn’t heard of Lori Drew and the MySpace suicide, but her federal indictment for ‘bullying a young girl on the Internet’ was news to me.
I’m not going to comment on the nature of the bullying or the outcome — clearly tragic, bordering on horrific. I’m not going to argue against punishment in general, but I have to express concern over the origin of the charges.
“federal charges for fraudulently using an account on MySpace” — seriously? what constitutes fraudulent use of MySpace? if I overstate my hot-ness, is that fraud? what if I accept friend requests from people who aren’t really friends? if I LOLZ at things that aren’t really funny?
I know, the indictment focuses the three counts on “accessing protected computers without authorization to obtain information to inflict emotional distress”:
- “accessing protected computers without authorization…” – this asserts that Drew wasn’t legally authorized because she gave false registration information, posing as a 16-year old boy. it’s not like she hacked into their system, she used their weak/unaudited registration system. and if accessing with falsified information is a crime, there are literally millions and millions of illegal logins everyday through MySpace, Hotmail, Yahoo, WordPress — you name the system.
- “… to obtain information…” — I’m not a legal scholar, but this law sounds like it was written to address hacking: gaining unauthorized access to systems and obtaining stored data. Drew didn’t use her bogus account and it’s basic access to launch a more sophisticated hacking attack on MySpace. nor did she use that account to access stored data on her target, like accessing a database full of credit card numbers or SSNs. she used the platform (messages and IM) and social engineering — no different than if she had called the girl on the phone and pretended to be a young man. if she had done that, would she be facing this same indictment? how about if she got the phone service through bogus registration information? if she just attacked her verbally or through rumors would there be conspiracy charges, or are we to believe that the Internet somehow makes this different?
in the indictment, it spells out what an Internet Service Provider is (“provides access to the Internet”) and what a Social Network Service is (“building communities… [often] providing email and IM”) and then proceeds to incorrectly specify that MySpace is an ISP. ugh. hire a bit-head/packet-herder for an hour, get the technical details right.
did you know that it is an “Overt Act” to induce someone else to write something in an Instant Message? apparently Drew induced her victim to write, “aww sexi josh ur so sweet if u moved back u could see me up close and personal lol.” I can see how you might induce someone to agree with something you wrote, something simple like that, but how do you induce someone to write something unscripted?
“Anyone who engages in harassment and violates the law similar to Ms. Drew is subject to investigation and prosecution on the right facts.”
so millions and millions of people who knowingly use accounts with false registration data run the risk of prosecution “on the right facts” — what kind of Orwellian language is that? they didn’t charge her with Harassment, they charged her with Conspiracy.
in Do Something, for the children!, I said that Cyber-Bullying is “a problem that only affects losers.*” now, this may come as a shock to you, but my real name is not st4rbux and I am not a Ignignokt, as my avatar might suggest. I’m pretty sure the date of birth and zip code I entered in WordPress is also not legit. given this combination of facts — attacking losers and false registration information — could I be indicted? could you?
the thrust of the legal argument seems to be that violation of Terms of Service makes the system access “unauthorized”, and then you’re into potential legal trouble. so if I set up a web site and buried an obscure clause in the Terms (“use of the word ‘whatnot’ in any forum, private message, or instant message violates the Terms of Service”), then I could get the federal government to prosecute anyone who used that phrase? I thought Terms of Service were contractual agreements between service providers and customers, and violations would be a contractual matter and not criminal. oh who am I kidding, everything that is not expressly permitted is forbidden; isn’t that where we’re headed?
after all this, I found a follow up on Wired:
Experts Say MySpace Suicide Indictment Sets ‘Scary’ Legal Precedent. I’m not an expert, but it’s never too late to go back and get a law degree…
In their eagerness to visit justice on a 49-year-old woman involved in the Megan Meier MySpace suicide tragedy, federal prosecutors in Los Angeles are resorting to a novel and dangerous interpretation of a decades-old computer crime law — potentially making a felon out of anybody who violates the terms of service of any website, experts say.
“This is a novel and extreme reading of what [the law] prohibits,” says Jennifer Granick, civil liberties director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “To say that you’re violating a criminal law by registering to speak under a false name is highly problematic. It’s probably an unconstitutional reading of the statute.”
* I hadn’t heard about the Drew/suicide case at the time, and might have shown more tact if I had known. probably not, but it’s nice to think so.