Two interesting pieces of news to note relating to people using MySpace for criminal purposes. The first, is a ruling of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Doe v. MySpace Inc that predictably held that MySpace is immune under s 230 of the Communications Decency Act from a lawsuit over the alleged sexual assault of a teenage girl by a man she met on the site. As Howard Bashman amusingly notes at How Appealing footnote one in the ruling helpfully explains that:
The term 'blog' is a portmanteau of 'Web log' and is a term referring to an online journal or diary.
The second is a post from Brett Trout at Blawg IT on the case of Missouri Mother Lori Drew who allegedly used MySpace to cause the suicide of her 16-year old neighbor Megan Meier. This week a federal grand jury in Los Angeles indicted Drew on one count of conspiracy and three counts of unauthorized access of protected computers to intentionally inflict emotional distress upon Meier:
Los Angeles federal prosecutors allege that back in 2006, Drew created a MySpace page for a fictitious 16-year old boy named "Josh." Drew allegedly used the MySpace account to send numerous messages to Meier. After initially befriending Meier, "Josh" ended the relationship with a message indicating the world be a better place without Meier. Meier killed herself that same day.
After state and federal prosecutors in Missouri refused to take any action against Drew, attorneys representing the Cyber and Intellectual Property Crimes Section of the U.S. Attorneys Office in MySpace’s hometown of Los Angeles brought the indictment against Drew. As reported by Wired, federal authorities have granted alleged co-conspirator, 19-year old Ashley Grills, immunity in return for her cooperation with the investigation. If convicted on all counts, Drew could be sentenced to up to 20 years in federal prison.
The laws being enforced against Drew were originally enacted to deter and punish computer hackers. It is important to note however, that despite any underlying legislative intent, there is nothing to prevent authorities from asserting these new laws against social networkers. Even though it is unlikely that even your most offensive social networking activities amount to what federal prosecutors allege took place in the Drew case, this case should sound as a warning call to all social networkers to double check how their actions might be perceived by others. Every social networker should double-check that none of their social networking activities might be construed as deceptive, fraudulent or harassing.
Most importantly, if you suspect your child may be the victim of a cyberbully, take action immediately. For more information on how to address cyberbullying, click here for my previous post on the subject. As the Drew case demonstrates, unchecked social networking can lead to much worse things than federal prison.
Was Lori Drew surprised to learn that she committed a federal crime when she signed on to a social networking site using a fictitious identity? We wondered that today while reading an indictment that charges Drew — a 49 year-old resident of Missouri who registered on MySpace as “Josh Evans,” a 16 year-old boy — with violating 18 U.S.C. Section §1030, a broad statute that criminalizes computer fraud.
The backstory: As detailed in this January New Yorker article and today’s indictment, Drew — under the guise of “Josh” — struck up a flirtatious online relationship with Megan Meier, a 13-year old MySpace member, that lasted for several weeks. According to the indictment, “Josh” told Megan she was “sexi” and made other sexually suggestive overtures. Then, “Josh” told Megan he was moving away and that the world would be a better place without her. After “Josh” broke off the relationship, Megan hanged herself in her bedroom.
Here, the theory of the case seems to be that when Drew registered on MySpace she agreed to certain terms of service that required her to, among other things, provide “truthful and accurate registration information” and “refrain from promoting information that” she knew was “false or misleading.” For violating the terms of service, the feds have charged her with conspiracy to access MySpace without authorization.
“A very sympathetic set of facts,” concedes Orin Kerr, a cyberlaw prof at George Washington. “But highly dubious; a weak legal argument.” Kerr, who says he’s considering making an offer to represent Drew, told the Law Blog that there are two problems with the legal theory. First, the statute requires a conspiracy to intentionally access the site without authorization, and there’s no evidence that Drew read or knew the terms of service. Second, it needs to be a conspiracy to obtain information, and this was not. “It was a conspiracy to harass,” said Kerr, “but that’s not what the statute is about.”
He added: “It’s a dangerous theory because terms of service are violated so often, and that means there’s a choice courts must face: maybe any violation of any terms of service is a federal crime; maybe no violations are a crime; or maybe some violations are a crime. If a court allows it, then it means that if the government is looking for a criminal charge against someone, they just need to show someone violated a term of service. Do I expect the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to allow it? No.”
Read more here.