Cyberbullying verdict: just deserts or bad case law?

In Monday's IT Blogwatch, Richi Jennings watches bloggers watch the Lori Drew/Megan Meier cyberbullying trial reach its conclusion -- with a worrying precedent? Not to mention Error'd...

Life gave us Sumner Lemon:

Megan Meier (source: Meier family)
A Missouri woman accused of creating a fake MySpace account to torment a girl who later committed suicide has been convicted on three misdemeanor counts but acquitted of felony charges. A jury in the Los Angeles court convicted Lori Drew on three counts of illegally accessing a computer system by creating a MySpace account under an assumed name.

She could be sentenced to as much as a year in prison and a US$100,000 fine for each of the three counts. After a trial of about a week and nearly a day of deliberations, the jury acquitted Drew on similar charges at a felony level, which could have brought sentences of five years each.
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Mathew Ingram adds:

Few online events have ended as horrifically as the Lori Drew case. Befriended by a boy on MySpace who later began bullying her, a teenager named Megan Meier hung herself, and her online friend later turned out to be the mother of a school classmate, who created the persona specifically to torment the young girl ... The court decided [this] was a case of “unauthorized access” to the social networking site (under the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act), because it was in breach of MySpace’s terms of service.

It’s easy to sympathize with the urge to punish Lori Drew ... but finding her guilty of a federal offense because she created a fake MySpace account leaves the entire online world on a very slippery legal slope. Yes, doing so is technically a breach of the terms of service for sites like MySpace and Facebook, but those rules ... are routinely overlooked. There are hundreds, possibly even thousands, of phony accounts on both networks — people who have created personas based on countries, religious figures, even inanimate objects.

Are all those people now guilty of a federal offense?
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Pamela Jones is worried. Really worried:

Have we lost our minds? ... I don't think it's overstating it a bit to say that unless this case is overturned, it is time to get off the Internet completely, because it will have become too risky to use a computer. At a minimum, I'd feel I'd need to avoid signing up for membership at any website, particularly MySpace.

...

MySpace gets to be the one that decides if we've violated their terms ... There is no recourse. They make the law and if you mess up, you go to jail. You used a computer, after all, didn't you, and their server isn't yours, and if they say you have violated their terms, you have. I'd also never upload anything to YouTube, and I wouldn't use anyone's blogging software. I'd definitely stay out of the Cloud, because I don't own those computers either, leaving me open to Computer Fraud & Abuse Act allegations.

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In short, it'd be time for me to just pack up and leave, if this verdict stands. If you think EULAs were bad, imagine after this ruling if they can be tied to the CFAA ... Would Microsoft hesitate to criminalize its EULA terms? You think? You trust?
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But Melissa King has little sympathy:

I’ve read the legal worries about the conviction of Lori Drew. I’ve read techie concerns that argue free speech in cyberspace is now on a slippery slope. I can understand how the Law was unprepared to consider such an odious event. Ordinary people cannot be expected to imagine the extremes an individual might go to, as Drew did, to harm a child. Missouri outlawed Drew’s behavior after the fact.

Nationwide, ordinary citizens using ordinary English had no problem naming what was wrong with Drew’s deeds. She stalked, harassed, conspired against, and harmed a child. Drew created a fake persona on MySpace and lured an unsuspecting 13 year-old girl to heartache. Drew, her own daughter, and an 18 year-old employee of Drew strung Megan Meier along.

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I cannot say it’s satisfying that Lori Drew has been found guilty of criminal hacking for violating the TOS agreement of MySpace. It is satisfying however that this particular adult has been held accountable for how she treated a child.
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Mark Spence and Anacris Garton have a different perspective:

While what happened to Megan Meier is a tragedy, her parents lack of parental oversight in this case is even more tragic ... Megan, with her parents consent and full knowledge, had a MySpace account even though it violated the same TOS ... Megan had been sending mean messages herself to others including Ms. Drew’s daughter before “Josh” entered the picture. Also in violation of the TOS ... Megan’s parents said they “closely monitored” their daughter’s actions online ... Megan was being treated for ADD and depression.

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Holding [Drew] responsible for Megan’s death is very short-sighted. Megan’s parents are the real villans in this case. Instead of trying to be parents, they try to be friends. Kids have enough friends, they need parents ... Like it or not, their daughter is dead because they didn’t protect her, even if that meant protecting her from herself.
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Trent "QuantumG" Waddington cuts to the chase:

WTF? She pretended to be an "internet boyfriend" and then told the girl she didn't want to talk to her anymore. She didn't put rat poison in her coffee. No-one is responsible for the death of a person who commits suicide, except the person who commits suicide.

Oh, no, life is too hard. A boy I've never met (and didn't even really exist) doesn't like me anymore, where's the sleeping pills?
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And finally...

Buffer overflow:

Other Computerworld bloggers:

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Richi Jennings is an independent analyst/adviser/consultant, specializing in blogging, email, and spam. A 23 year, cross-functional IT veteran, he is also an analyst at Ferris Research. You can follow him on Twitter, pretend to be Richi's friend on Facebook, or just use boring old email: blogwatch@richi.co.uk.

Previously in IT Blogwatch:

BTW, for those telling me that I've spelled "dessert" incorrectly, you're mistaken.

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