I am completely insane. I saw an article this morning in the Washington Post about the Lori Drew case. For those who aren’t familiar with that case, or have just forgotten, she is charged with conspiracy and three counts of accessing a computer without authorization. When Megan Meier committed suicide after large numbers of nasty messages from a fake MySpace account that was apparently set up by Lori Drew, a public outcry encouraged some attempt at punishing her for her actions.
The problem was fairly simple, as legal questions go: what crime had she committed? What statute had she violated? Unfortunately, when technology evolves faster than statutory law does, some acts that seem criminal, such as harassing a girl on a social networking site using a false account, can manage to not violate any existing laws. However, federal prosecutors in Los Angeles, where MySpace’s servers are located, elected to charge Mrs. Drew with the crimes that I listed above. The more observant will notice that Mrs. Drew is not charged with murder or even seemingly anything connected to the death that occurred.
My reference to my insanity is basically designed as a comment on how I reacted to the article I saw on Thursday morning. Most people would simply say what they thought, or write a letter to the editor. I, on the other hand, went straight to my computer and searched for the text of the statute where the crimes in question were defined, and I believe I’ve found the relevant statute. My next stop was MySpace itself, where I searched for the Terms of Service that define MySpace’s rules.
Did I mention that after I graduate from Brandeis University four years from now, I’m going to go to law school to become a lawyer? I spent the next half-hour reading the statute, reading the Terms of Service, and examining the legal issues for myself, as best I could without actually having the professional training. According to the Post article that aroused my attention, the defense lawyer for Lori Drew has formally requested that the charges be thrown out, because of how common her actions are.
After all, how many of us can say that we actually read in detail those EULAs and those Terms of Service agreements that always pop up before we can install any new program? Most of the time, I know I don’t. I try to read them more carefully for online activities, such as MMORPGs like EVE Online or websites like the one hosting this blog, to get a good idea of what is and is not prohibited by that service’s rules, but even then I almost never read every detail, and I never recheck those things like most say you’re supposed to do. And I know for sure that I have actually violated the EULA of at least one of my games: apparently you’re not supposed to share your password for an MMO account with anyone else.
The arguments for such a dismissal of charges, then, are obvious. Everyone would be guilty of accessing a computer without authorization, including law-abiding citizens like me, if breaking the Terms of Service or the EULA of a program or website qualifies as accessing a computer without authorization. Those agreements aren’t really designed to be understandable; they’re designed to ensure that the company in question is protected from any liability and has a justification for kicking people out if they commit actions that run counter to that company’s website. Since people won’t want to use MySpace if people on that site are posting pornography on it, MySpace bans links to adult websites. It’s common business sense, not law in and of itself.
And yet. My sense of justice rages at envisioning a person that I see as responsible for a young girl’s death walk away without sanction. Having gone over many of the documents that I thought would be relevant to this case, I think that there’s easily enough substance in the charges to justify hashing the details out in a trial. Not actually being a lawyer, I’m not even going to try to sort out all of the issues with these charges; that’s for the prosecutors, judges, and defense lawyers that are actually involved to sort out.
However. From what little understanding I have, I don’t think a guilty verdict in this case would be justification to strike down anyone who’s violated an EULA. I haven’t exactly covered the U.S. Code in great detail, but the terms of the statute that I’ve been looking at (Title 18, part I, chapter 47, §1030, from http://www.usdoj.gov/criminal/cybercrime/1030NEW.htm) don’t appear to merely criminalize unauthorized access. All of its sections, from what I can see, also refer to some element of harm that is caused by access without authorization. I’m safe, then; not only do my “indiscretions” with the passwords of my best friend, my brother, and even my own (you’re not supposed to share your own or use anyone else’s) have failed to cause any of the harm detailed, but I was also acting with the express permission of those people.
And even if a guilty verdict in the Drew case opened up prosecutions of teenagers across the U.S. that had merely misrepresented their age on MySpace, then what of it? Maybe that should be punished. It would probably be a waste of time for the courts, for certain. But maybe we need to start cutting back on the anonymity of the Internet. The anonymity present on the Internet, since no one can determine who’s behind that user name on a forum or MMO, does not grant a right to misrepresent yourself, to lie, to other people.
And if people are going to take the ability to say whatever they like on the Internet, and use that to create a situation where a young girl kills herself, then there needs to be a change somewhere. People tend to think that there’s no harm involved, that no one is worse off if they call themselves 21 rather than 17 on the web, just as it’s easy to say and think that they were just kidding when they were making fun of someone else. But actions have consequences. That kidding around that seems like harmless fun on the outside is really miserable when you’re the target of the insulting jokes. And the little lie about one’s true age is still a lie.
In the end, the damage done is to society. I’m an idealist; I accept that fact about myself. I think we’d all be much better off if honor, decency, and moral values were more highly regarded in society. And we can’t build a society that values the truth by condoning lies of any kind. And if we don’t either punish Mrs. Drew for her actions or create new statutes directed at her actions (preferably both, in my opinion) then what’s to stop the next person from creating a false impression that causes the death of someone else?