The following text is copyright 2008 by Network World, permission is hearby given for reproduction, as long as attribution is given and this notice is included.

 

Hard to get justice in the MySpace case.

 

By: Scott Bradner

 

Lori Drew was convicted of actions basically unrelated to what most people think she did but even those convictions may not be what is best for you and me, or for the Internet.

 

According to court testimony, Lori Drew, a 49-year-old woman, participated in an on-line ruse - pretending to be a 16-year-old boy on MySpace - that ultimately led a 13-year-old Megan Meier to hang herself in a bedroom closet.   Assuming the testimony is accurate, the girl's death was a direct result of actions by Drew and a young woman that worked for her.  It is hard to put into words the level of revulsion one feels about people who would do this sort of thing to another human, much less to an adolescent.  But it turns out that acting in this type of vile way on the Internet is not illegal - just immoral.

 

Drew lives in Missouri and accessed MySpace from there.  Missouri law enforcement officials decided to not bring charges in the case because they did not find enough evidence.  But Thomas O’Brien, a US Attorney in Los Angle, decided that he would go after Drew.  He said be could because MySpace is based in Los Angles and its servers are there.

 

O’Brien charged Drew, not with anything directly relating to the death of Megan Meier, but instead of accessing a computer without authorization by violating MySpace's user agreement by, among other things, assuming a false identity.  The case went to trial and Drew was convicted of misdemeanor charges but found not guilty of similar felony charges.

 

There is a lot bad for the Internet in this case.  One major issue is one that has plagued the net since the days of dialup bulletin boards.  There can be a total capriciousness as to where charges are brought.  Drew was charged in Los Angles despite the fact that both she and her victim lived near each other more than 1,500 miles away from Los Angles.

 

The biggest issue is that this case is attempting to make not reading and obeying a website's user agreement a criminal offence.  The MySpace user agreement (http://pages.ebay.com/help/policies/user-agreement.html) is almost 3,000 words long, hardly something that many MySpace users have even looked it, much less memorized.  At least MySpace has written their user agreement in English, rather than lawyer. Facebook's terms of use (http://www.facebook.com/terms.php?ref=pf) is more than twice as long and much less readable by ordinary English speaking humans.   Before this case, the worst that would happen if you violated a web site's terms of service is that you could get banned from the web site.  With this case you could (theoretically) go to jail if you ignore or misunderstand a multi thousand word terms of service statement that was drafted by a paranoid legal intern drinking too much Jolt Cola.

 

If the conviction is not overturned on appeal we will all be subject to the whims of publicity seeking prosecutors half a continent away.   But, that said, it looks like the prosecutors may have a hard time making this conviction stick.  They presented no evidence that Drew ever saw the user agreement - in this case ignorance of the rules may just be a viable excuse.

 

For the good of the 'Net I hope the conviction is overturned.  That does not mean that I feel anything but revolution when I think of what Lori Drew and her helper did.  They will not be able to escape the shame of their roles unless they, again, assume false identities. Maybe that is all the justice that can be expected in this case.

 

disclaimer: There is a whole school at Harvard that deals with the difference between justice and the law but I know of no statement from the school or the university about this case so the above diatribe is mine.