In October, 2006 13 year old Megan Meier committed suicide. This suicide gained national attention because it became linked to the social networking site MySpace.
It has been alleged that 49 year old Lori Drew created a fake profile in which she purported to be a 16 year old boy named “Josh Evans.” It has been claimed that the fake profile was used to send cruel messages to Meier and that these messages played a causal role in her suicide.
Of course, merely sending cruel messages to people is not illegal. Currently, Drew has been charged with one count of conspiracy and three counts of accessing protected computers without authorization.
From a moral standpoint, if Drew created a fake profile and sent cruel messages to Meier, then Drew was doing something wrong. First, she was acting in a dishonest manner. Second, she was acting in a way to intentionally cause distress and suffering in another person without any justification. While she most likely did not intend for Meier to actually commit suicide, the messages seem to have played a causal role in the death. The evidence for this is that the messages explicitly said that the world would be better off without Meier. While such messages cannot, obviously, cause a person to commit suicide, they can be considered plausibly as contributory causes. However, their contributory role seems to have been deemed to weak to serve as the basis for criminal charges in this regard.
From a legal standpoint, the foundation for the case is the federal statute on accessing protected computers. In the past, this has been mainly used in cases involving hacking and the law seems primarily intended to outlaw the digital equivalent of breaking and entering.
The law, as written, certainly does not seem to govern the sending of cruel or even harmful messages. These would, it seems, be better handled with laws dealing with harassment. Of course, merely sending cruel messages does not seem to violate any laws (there are, of course, exceptions-such as those falling under hate crime laws). As such, prosecuting Drew under this statute on the basis of the messages seems legally problematic.
The indictment itself includes reference to the fact that Drew, if she engaged in the alleged activities, violated the MySpace membership terms. These terms include not promoting false or misleading claims, not soliciting personal information from people under 18, and not using information gathered from MySpace to “harass, abuse or harm other people.”
It has been alleged that Drew violated these terms because she created an account under a phony name, used a picture of a boy without his permission, and used MySpace to gain information about Meier which was then employed to harass, abuse and harm her.
These alleged violations can be used to justify the application of the statute mentioned above. While I am not a lawyer, here is how one could reason about the matter.
While the case at hand is one that is emotionally charged, the matter should be given proper consideration before the statute is applied in this manner. All too often people just think about how horrible the specific situation happens to be without considering the long term implications.
It might be objected that people might do terrible things in the course of violating the terms of service-as happened in the case at hand. However, the terrible things that are done are what should be the matter of focus. If the terrible things are already illegal, then the relevant laws can be used to deal with them. If these terrible things are not illegal but are truly harmful, then new laws should be created to deal with them. Existing laws should not be distorted to make them apply simply because people are outraged and feel the need to take action. This is because such a distortion creates the potential for future abuse of such laws and this can create serious problems.
What, then, should be done in the current case?
If Drew was involved in sending the messages, then she did a terrible and cruel thing. However, such cruel behavior does not appear to be illegal, nor does contributing to a person’s suicide in this manner. For example, suppose that two people (Dick and Jane) are dating and the relationship goes badly. Jane breaks up with Dick via email and says cruel and terrible things to him. In response, Dick shoots himself. In this case, while Jane was acting in an evil manner, she has not acted in an illegal manner. As such, she cannot be prosecuted for being cruel. This is why the current case is focused primarily on the computer aspects of the situation.
As noted above, the use of the computer laws seems to be problematic. While it is tempting to bend laws to deal with cases that create moral outrage, it is important to resist this temptation. While people who do wrong should be punished, bending laws in response to emotions creates precedents that can be misused later on. If Drew, in fact, did what she is accused of doing, then she should be punished. But, she should be punished through the legitimate and proper application of the law.