Will the MySpace suicide case affect U.S. Internet users' free speech rights, privacy, and due process?

Last week, Lori Drew, a 49-year-old mother, was federally indicted on charges connected to 13-year-old Megan Meier’s suicide. Drew allegedly created a fake MySpace user by the name of Josh to manipulate Meier with intent to cause her emotional harm because Drew didn’t like Meier (for whatever reason).

Megan hanged herself at home in October 2006, allegedly after receiving a dozen or more cruel messages, including one stating the world would be better off without her.

I’d have killed myself too if I saw that. By whatever means necessary.

If Drew is responsible for this (which I think she is), she should
be prosecuted with whatever criminal charges they can level against
her. But Drew, from Missouri, was not charged by state authorities
because they couldn’t find any state laws that would apply to this case.

However, the federal prosecutors are arguing that Drew violated News
Corp’s (the parent co. that owns MySpace) TOS (terms of service) and
“illegally accessed protected computers.”

Prosecutors
argue that to access MySpace’s servers, Drew first had to sign up for
the service, which meant providing her name and date of birth and
agreeing to abide by the site’s terms of service. Those terms bar false
registration information, solicitation of personal information from
anyone under 18 and use of any information gathered from the Web site
to “harass, abuse, or harm another person.”

By using a fictitious name, among other things, Drew violated
MySpace’s terms and thus had no authority to access the MySpace
service, prosecutors charged.

Although my
MySpace and Facebook pages have my real name plastered on them, they’re
harmless if a prospective employer decides to do a Google search on me.
And if they take issue with the fact that I’m a huge Freezepop fan,
then it’s an employer I probably wouldn’t want to work for anyway.

Now, legal experts are arguing that free speech rights and constitutional due processes are on the line.

“…such
an interpretation could criminalize routine behavior on the Internet.
After all, people regularly create accounts or post information under
aliases for many legitimate reasons, including parody, spam avoidance
and a desire to maintain their anonymity or privacy online or that of a
child.

This new interpretation also gives a business contract the force
of a law: Violations of a Web site’s user agreement could now lead to
criminal sanction, not just civil lawsuits or ejection from a site.”

Because corporations would end up setting criminal standards, a
completely legal act at one site could be illegal at another, said
[former federal prosecutor Andrew] DeVore, who has no direct
involvement in the case.

“What clearly is going on is they couldn’t find a way to charge it
under traditional criminal law statutes,” DeVore said. “The conduct
that she engaged in they correctly concluded wouldn’t satisfy the
statute. Clearly they were looking for some other way to bring a
charge.”

Great.
So one of two things could happen: Drew could get off on this
technicality that everybody does it and you can’t charge her for doing
something that seemingly “protects” people’s privacy (even though it’s
against the TOS) or Drew could be indicted on this regardless,
leaving anonymous people like me with the potential to be criminally
charged for violating the TOS and “illegally accessing protected
computers.” (Key word here is “potential.” I don’t think anything
serious would happen as a result of the latter except in cases like
this. But I have been wrong before.) The
Center for Democracy and Technology has now gotten involved saying that
the case “represents ‘a gross and inappropriate expansion of federal
power to regulate speech’ over the Internet.”

If the indictment stands, all that “fine print” of the user
agreement is moved from an annoyance to a significant legal risk, the
watchdog group said: “If you violate any term, you are committing a
federal crime. This could seriously chill the robust interactivity of
the Internet.”

Drew’s lawyer plans to challenge the charges.

I always encounter moments of indecision on issues like these
because while I want Drew to face some kind of punishment, I don’t want
to do it at the cost of penalizing the rights of millions of Internet
users in the U.S.

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