Tag Archives: terms of service

What the Lori Drew acquittal should mean for service providers

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.

Website terms of service provide basis for exercise of personal jurisdiction

CoStar Realty Information, Inc. v. Field, — F.Supp.2d —-, 2009 WL 841132 (D.Md. March 31, 2009)

Personal jurisdiction cases — even ones that involve the internet — are generally not all that interesting. But the case of CoStar Realty Information, Inc. v. Field is worth noting because of the way the personal jurisdiction analysis was tied to a provision found in online terms of service.

CoStar provides its paying customers with access to a proprietary database via the web. It claimed that certain defendants, who were residents of Texas and Florida, accessed the database using another customer’s password. So CoStar sued these defendants in federal court in Maryland.

These defendants moved to dismiss arguing, among other things, lack of personal jurisdiction. The court denied the motion.

It found that in the four or so years that the defendants accessed the database without authorization, they would have been presented with the online terms of service from time to time. Those terms of service contained a clause which provided that any litigation over use of the database would be conducted in Maryland. The court found that the defendants assented to these terms, and that the forum selection clause was valid and enforceable.

Map photo courtesy Flickr user Marxchivist under this Creative Commons license

Shame on you, Facebook, for overreaching

Facebook, I hereby grant to you an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to use the following content: “Go jump in a lake.”

The past few days people have been talking about how scandalous it is that Facebook changed its terms of service to grab up a very broad license in content its users upload. I’m sure that Facebook is counting on this controversy to go wherever it is that memes go to die, to be forgotten just like most controversies-du-semaine. It probably will, but as the sentiment finds itself already on the decline, I’ll comment.

Here’s what the offending section of the Facebook terms of service now says, in relevant part:

You hereby grant Facebook an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to (a) use, copy, publish, stream, store, retain, publicly perform or display, transmit, scan, reformat, modify, edit, frame, translate, excerpt, adapt, create derivative works and distribute (through multiple tiers), any User Content you (i) Post on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof subject only to your privacy settings or (ii) enable a user to Post, including by offering a Share Link on your website and (b) to use your name, likeness and image for any purpose, including commercial or advertising, each of (a) and (b) on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof. You represent and warrant that you have all rights and permissions to grant the foregoing licenses.

I was pretty peeved when I learned that Facebook had modified its terms to get a broader license. But I was even more peeved when I read founder Mark Zuckerburg’s blog post from yesterday which tried to justify the changes. Of course Facebook must make sure it has the rights it needs in order to “show [users’ content and information] to the other people they’ve asked [it] to share it with.” But isn’t the right to share that content inherent in the very “asking”? Why be grabby?

Facebook is being content greedy. It’s commandeering more than it needs to run the service. An example Zuckerburg uses in the post concerns the text of a messages sent between friends. If one user deactivates his or her account, a copy of each message will still exist in the other friend’s inbox. Fine. I see the point. So get a license to store and display a copy of private messages. There’s no problem with that.

The bigger rub comes with photos and video users upload. Why does Facebook need a perpetual license for that? I don’t see any reason, whether from a technological or other practical standpoint, why photos and video could not or should not be deleted — and the license to Facebook terminated — when a user deactivates his or her account. YouTube doesn’t demand a license for content after it has been taken down by a user.

Zuckerburg’s post contains the following interesting statement: “In reality, we wouldn’t share your information in a way you wouldn’t want.” Okay Mark, let’s talk about reality. I don’t want you using information about me, like my name, for commercial purposes. That’s reality. Why then do you demand to have the right to use my name and other information for commercial purposes? Are you suggesting that the terms of service as now written don’t reflect reality? I know they were written by lawyers, but surely your legal counsel can’t be that removed from the real world.

I like Facebook, and through it I have reconnected with old friends and made some new ones. But those connections are what’s important, not the intermediary. I may delete my photos off of there but I’ll probably keep using it, at least for now. But I’ll likely post less content. Shame on you, Facebook, and shame on you Mark Zuckerburg, for putting up a post just filled with platitudes, all while ignoring the fact there’s no reason for your new overreaching. That kind of stunt will invigorate those who want an alternative to Facebook, and will accellerate the process of making Facebook tomorrow’s Friendster.

Greedy photo courtesy Flickr user Gribiche under this Creative Commons license.