December 3, 2008

Cyberbullying verdict raises legal questions

Running neck-and-neck in the Bad Behavior Gone Wild category are the shoppers who trampled a poor Wal-Mart worker to death in Long Island and the Missouri woman who bullied a 13-year-old until the depressed girl hanged herself.

But while everyone is outraged by both cases, last week's criminal conviction in the cyberbullying case has troubling implications about the criminalization of the Internet.

A federal jury convicted Lori Drew of three misdemeanor counts of computer fraud for misrepresenting herself as a teenage boy on the popular MySpace social networking site. Jurors apparently agreed with prosecutors that creating a phone profile constituted "unauthorized access" to MySpace, under a federal law that previously was used only to prosecute hackers.

Analyzing the verdict's implications is Brian Stelter of the New York Times:
While the Internet's anonymity was used in this case as a cloak to bully Megan, other users say they have perfectly good reasons to construct false identities online, if only to help protect against the theft of personal information, for example. "It will be interesting to see if issues of safety and security will eventually trump the hallmark ideology of free, largely anonymous or pseudonymous participation in cyberspace," said Sameer Hinduja, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Florida Atlantic University. Andrew M. Grossman, senior legal policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, said the possibility of being prosecuted for online misrepresentation, while remote, should worry users nonetheless. "If this verdict stands," Mr. Grossman said, "it means that every site on the Internet gets to define the criminal law. That's a radical change. What used to be small-stakes contracts become high-stakes criminal prohibitions."
Danah Boyd of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society expressed perhaps the broadest perspective:
"There are lots of kids hurting badly online,” she said. "And guess what? They’re hurting badly offline, too. Because it's more visible online, people are blaming technology rather than trying to solve the underlying problems of the kids that are hurting."
The full story is here.

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