You know the story of Lori Drew — the mom from Missouri who was accused of setting up a bogus MySpace profile impersonating an adolescent boy. Lori acted as this fake “Josh” to stir up romantic feelings in young Megan Meier who, after being dumped by “Josh,” took her own life.
A terrible thing of course. And someone needed blaming. So federal prosecutors chose to go after Lori Drew. The jury convicted her of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (the federal anti-hacking statute), but today the judge acquitted her. Seems like a good decision, as the theory on which the prosecution based its case — that Lori violated the site’s terms of service by saying she was someone other than she is and thereby exceeded her authority — was shaky at best. The big problem with that theory was that such a reading would make most of us criminals. I’m sure you don’t mean to tell me you’ve never signed up for an online service using something other than your real name or accurate contact information.
Most smart people can agree that the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act was not the right way to punish this “crime.” Various states have enacted legislation to handle cyberbullying and are already prosecuting people in state court. But the problem is not going to go away. People will still do foolish things on the internet.
And to the extent that foolishness is criminal, the individual should pay a criminal price. The individual.
Using the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act to go after this conduct put the contractual relationship between the end user and the provider (i.e., Lori Drew and MySpace) under the microscope where it did not belong. The court and jury had to scrutinize that contractual relationship and the resulting authority (or lack thereof). They had to do that because there was no other way the government was going to win a CFAA prosecution otherwise.
Focusing on that relationship in this context did not make sense. MySpace didn’t have anything to do with this other than being a passive intermediary. Why should the inquiry at trial have gone to those kinds of questions? Why should the intermediary have been bothered? It shouldn’t have.
The bad act was (I guess we have to again say “allegedly was” now that she’s been acquitted) between Lori Drew and Megan Meier. That’s the space where the factual focus and legal analysis belonged. Not in the legal relationship between Lori Drew and MySpace.
Now that we have a sensible legal outcome in this case, hopefully prosecutors will take some more principled approaches and leave the intermediaries out of it.