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Jesse Brown:15 years for violating MySpace’s Terms of Use?

By Jesse Brown, CBC technology columnist.

Millions of people pretend to be someone they’re not on the internet. On the scale of fraud, I’d say most people consider creating a fake online persona to be slightly less harmful than, say, sneaking in to a movie.

Then again, most fake online identities don’t result in suicide.

Missouri mom Lori Drew, along with her daughter and an employee, are alleged to have created a fictitious dreamboat boyfriend named Josh Evans to torment their 13 year-old neighbour, Megan Meier. “Josh” romanced Megan and then turned on her, telling her that “the world would be a better place without you.” Megan hanged herself.

Missouri law was powerless to do anything about the alleged impersonation. But now, two years after Megan’s death, Drew is on trial before a federal grand jury in Los Angeles. Why L.A.? Because that’s where MySpace’s servers are located.

The criminal charges against Lori Drew are one count of conspiracy and three counts of “illegally accessing computers”. Though the law has traditionally been used against hackers, in this case the prosecution is arguing that violating MySpace’s Terms Of Use qualifies. The TOU requires “truthful and accurate" registration information. Each charge carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

But this potentially precedent-setting case has problems:

  • When you break a law on the internet, whose jurisdiction are you in? The place you were in at the time? Or maybe where the recipient is? Or is it where the servers are stored? This case suggests that when the authorities are mad enough, it’s wherever the laws are stiffest.
  • Can violating an online TOU be considered a federal crime, punishable by imprisonment? Long, confusing, non-negotiable TOU agreements are clicked by millions every day: often by minors, and often on sites like MySpace, which many kids look at as a casual entertainment.

You don’t have to sign a contract before watching Hannah Montana, and I question how binding a MySpace TOU should really be. In any event, I hope that this isn’t the case to decide the point.

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Comments

Alex

Winnipeg

See now I think people like this need to be nailed to the wall (not actually thought I'm not for capital punishment). Actions they took with the intent to hurt her ended in her death, and there needs to be answers for this. The Mom is the worst in all this with a daughter of her own, I can't believe a grown person would be such a child. They deserve some kind of punishment, I think what ever we can find is good.

Posted November 19, 2008 07:33 PM

Gordon Chamberlain

It would be an interesting article to see what our politician have done to protect Canadians from harrasment, bullying, intimidation and malliscious intent by others on the internet

Posted November 20, 2008 10:14 PM

Chris

winipeg

I agree with Alex, the mother come across like a very imature and unresponsible person. crushing someones heart online for fun is the same as bullying in my opinon and should be punished.

oh, and for the record I agree with capital punishment in limited forms. the strap is an excellent deterant and brought me back to the real world when I was grossly out of line.

Posted November 22, 2008 10:58 AM

Webber

BC

Have you ever read the terms of service on some of these sites?
They can be pretty scary, if you take them all as law.
If by agreeing to a sites TOU you are opening yourself to prosecution, we will have to be very very careful.
There should be consequences, but how far should the law go in enforcing arbitrary agreements like this?

Posted November 26, 2008 04:39 PM

Mike Parniak

Calgary

This is a truly reprehensible judgment. While Drew's actions were undeniably mean and puerile, especially considering the age of the girl she was acting against, being a jackass is not, in itself, illegal.

Did she set out with the genuine intention to cause the death of Megan Meier? Unlikely. Did she break into anyone else's account to do it? No. The law used as an excuse to perform what is little more than a mob lynching would result in the imprisonment of more than 90% of internet users. People misrepresent themselves everywhere, for various reasons. The law was not about forcing people to be honest, it was meant to prosecute those who hijack other people's accounts.

As much as we may (correctly) think Drew is slime, it doesn't give us free permission to pervert the justice system to administer arbitrary justice based on our dislike for the woman.

Any code of ethics that one does not hold to when it is not convenient to do so, is not a code of ethics at all.

Badly, badly done LA.

Posted December 3, 2008 06:12 AM

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