It will be very easy for people to take away the wrong lessons from the story of Lori Drew, who this week was found guilty of several counts of computer fraud in a case of cyberbullying that drove 13-year-old Missouri native Megan Meier to suicide.
The gist: in 2006, 49-year-old Lori Drew, a neighbor of Meier's who believed that Meier had spread gossip about her own 13-year-old daughter, a former friend. With help from her daughter and her 18-year-old assistant, Drew created a MySpace page belonging to a fictitious 16-year-old boy named Josh Evans. For some weeks Evans sent Meier flirtatious messages, then abruptly dumped her with a stream of messages and bulletings, ending with the message, "The world would be a better place without you." Meier, who had for five years been taking prescription medication for attention deficit disorder and depression, who was overweight and lacked self-esteem, hanged herself.
The story is a horror movie for parents. This is a teen who was, her mother said in court, almost always supervised in her Internet use. In fact, Meier and Drew's daughter had, some months earlier, created a fake MySpace page to talk to boys online, an escapade that caused Meier's mother to close down her MySpace access for some months. On the day of Meier's suicide, her mother was on her way to the orthodontist with her younger daughter when Meier, distraught, reported the stream of unpleasant messages. Her mother told her to sign off. She didn't; when her mother came home there was a brief altercation; they found her 20 minutes later.
The basic elements of the story are not, of course, new. Identity deception is as old as online services; the best-known early case was that of Joan, a CompuServe forum regular who for more than two years in the early 1990s claimed to be a badly disabled former neuropsychologist whose condition made her reluctant to meet people, especially her many online friends. Joan was in fact a fictional character, the increasingly elaborate creation of a male New York psychiatrist named Alex.
Cyberbullying is, of course, also not new. You can go back to the war between alt.tasteless and rec.pets.cats in 1992, if you like, but organized playground behavior seems to flourish in every online medium. Gail Williams, the conference manager at the WELL, said about ten years ago that a lot of online behavior seems to be people working our their high school angst, and nothing has changed in the interim except that a lot of people online now actually still in high school. And unfortunately for them, the people they're working out their high school angst with are bigger, older, more experienced, and a lot savvier about where to stick in the virtual knife. People can be damned unpleasant sometimes.
But let's look at the morals people are finding. EfluxMedia:
The case of Megan Meier calls for boundaries when it comes to cyberbullying and the use of social networking sites in general, but also calls for reason. Social networking sites and the Internet in general have become more than just virtual realities, they are now part of our everyday lives, and they influence us in ways that we cannot ignore. What we must learn from this is that our actions may have unimaginable consequences on other people, even when it comes to the Internet, so think twice before you act.
Boundaries? Meier was far more rigorously supervised online than the average teen. Who's going to supervise the behavior of a 49-year-old woman to make sure she doesn't cross the line?
More to the point, the court's verdict found that Drew had broken federal laws concerning computer fraud. Is it hacking to set up a pseudonymous MySpace page and send fraudulent postings? The MySpace's 2006 terms and conditions required registration information to be truthful and banned harassment and sexual exploitation. Have MySpace's terms become federal law?
The answer is probably that there was no properly applicable law. We've seen that situation before, too - Robert Schifreen and Steve Gold were prosecuted under the laws against wire fraud. The eventual failure of the case on appeal proved the need for the Computer Misuse Act and comparable laws against hacking elsewhere in the world. Ironically, these laws are now showing their limits, too, as the Drew case proves. We can now, I suppose, expect to see a lot of proposals for laws banning cyberbullying under which people like Drew could be more correctly prosecuted.
But the horror movie is only partly about online; online, in this case MySpace, allowed the hoaxers to post "Josh Evans'" bare-chested photo. The same kind of hoax, with hardly less impact, could have been carried out by letter and poster. Wanda Holloway didn't need online to contract to muder her daughter's more successful cheerleading rival.
Ultimately, the lesson we should be learning is the same one we heard at this year's Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference: just like rape and incest, you are more at risk for harassment and cyberbullying from people you know. Unfortunately, most such law seems to be written with the idea that it's strangers who are dangerous.
Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to email@example.com (but please turn off HTML).