Commentary

MySpace Suicide Case Sparks Dubious Laws

There's no question that the Megan Meier tragedy left many people outraged. But this widespread indignation has also spurred some very questionable legal and policy decisions.

First, there was the prosecution of Lori Drew -- an adult who helped hatch a plan to create a fake profile of a boy, "Josh," who sent messages to 13-year-old Megan. She killed herself after receiving a final message from Josh -- a statement that the world would be a better place without her. But that email didn't come from Drew. Rather, it was sent by now 20-year-old Ashley Grills, the former babysitter for Drew's daughter. (It also wasn't sent on MySpace.)

Clearly, Drew showed poor judgment here. But it's hard to accept the government's legal conclusion that she committed federal computer fraud by violating MySpace's terms of service -- which require users to register under their own names.

At trial, there was no proof that she'd even read the terms of service. But even had she done so, computer fraud laws are aimed at people who obtain access to sites for purposes of identity theft and hacking -- not at people who create pseudonymous profiles.

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Additionally, MySpace's s terms probably aren't even legally valid because the site reserves the right to change them at will. Consider, a federal district court in Texas just held that Blockbuster's terms of service aren't enforceable because Blockbuster includes a similar condition in them.

After a trial last year, the jury convicted Drew of three misdemeanor counts. Today, prosecutors filed papers asking the judge to sentence Drew to three years in prison -- though federal sentencing guidelines call for probation. Meanwhile, the judge is still considering whether to toss the conviction.

But that's not the only fallout. Various states are mulling laws that would regulate social networking sites by, for instance, requiring parents to give permission for children to use the sites, or imposing obligations on sites to police comments. Should any states enact such laws, courts would almost certainly declare them unconstitutional or toss them on other grounds.

Meanwhile, Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) has introduced a federal law, the "Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act." For now, the wording is probably too broad to be constitutional. The bill makes it a crime to send electronic communications "with the intent to coerce, intimidate, harass, or cause substantial emotional distress to a person" and requires that the sender exhibit "severe, repeated, and hostile behavior" -- a clause that doesn't exactly lend itself to easy definition.

2 comments about "MySpace Suicide Case Sparks Dubious Laws".
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  1. Stephen Dennison from Level 3 Communications, Inc., May 6, 2009 at 8:36 p.m.

    First, this is tragic beyond comprehension. I am the father of a 10-Year old emotionally sensitive and vulnerable daughter, and there are no words for the rage I feel for the people that would embark on such a willful act of emotional destruction. Society is poorly served by such mean spirited and sociopathic people.

    Second, I have to believe that the monsters that engineered this attack were not targetting the suicide of the victim ... that hardly absolves them ... I see this as a case of intent to harm psychologically and criminal ignorance/stupidity in not considering the victim's suicide as one real possible outcome of their actions.

    That said, the same thing could have been accomplished with the Phone ... or the mail, albeit slower. The Internet is a much more powerful medium for emotional manipulation because of it's immediacy and the ease of which a person can hide their identity, but if we target social sites for policing content and individual communications, should we also enact laws that require a 10 day waiting period on the purchase of Stamps or a Pencil? Should we regulate all social interaction to a greater degree than we do now?

    Well intentioned emotional knee-jerking at the legislative level should only result in one action ... recognition of the fact by cooler heads that the individual knee-jerking is unfit to legislate, something that should be addressed immediately or at the next election.

  2. David Thurman from Aussie Rescue of Illinois, May 7, 2009 at 10:12 a.m.

    Well said Stephen

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