Meier case charges should - and just might - leave us speechless

The now-famous story of Megan Meier, a 13-year-old Missouri girl who killed herself after receiving cruel messages from what she considered an online MySpace friend, is a tragedy for her and her family.

The now-famous story of Megan Meier, a 13-year-old Missouri girl who killed herself after receiving cruel messages from what she considered an online MySpace friend, is a tragedy for her and her family. And the acts of an adult neighbor, Lori Drew, one of several people who reportedly concocted this supposed friend using fake names in their MySpace registration, were sleazy, if not despicable.

But the response of federal prosecutors in LA, who are hauling Drew halfway across America on criminal charges after Missouri officials concluded no crime had been committed, is downright dangerous.

The charges include conspiracy, which seems like an overreach all by itself. But in what can only be called a grotesque abuse, the prosecutors also charged Drew with violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, on the theory that Drew "fraudulently gain[ed] access to someone else's computer" by using a fake name to register at MySpace, a unit of Fox Interactive, in violation of the terms of service.

In other words, the prosecutors in this case are saying that the victim is MySpace, not Meier. MySpace, shamefully, supports this prosecution.

The terms of service at most sites are ridiculously overbroad, even Draconian. Who actually reads, much less grasps, the 10,000-word terms at most sites? Who doesn't occasionally view a site using a fake name?

If that's a criminal offense, prison builders will have lots of work in coming years. To suggest that we could all be liable for criminal prosecution for what should only be grounds for being kicked off the service, or at most be a civil violation, is downright un-American.

Again, I have little sympathy for Drew, who reportedly created the account after her own daughter had a falling out with Meier and wanted to learn what she was telling others about her daughter. I'd have no problem with a civil suit in this matter, though I've seen nothing to even suggest that Drew actually wanted Meier to commit suicide, however cruel she was otherwise.

But twisting the law to get revenge, however satisfying it might be in the near term, is just as wrong. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act was clearly not intended for these kinds of situations.

The key lesson from this case - and many others - should be about societal norms, not laws. Of course we should stand behind our words. We should use real names in most online conversations and strongly encourage others to do the same. But we need to protect anonymous and pseudonymous speech, too, because sometimes we need it.

The best way to handle anonymous and pseudonymous trolls and sleazebags is to ignore them and persuade everyone else - especially children - that such speech is less than worthless. Sending people to jail for this is an assault on speech itself.

Dan Gillmor is director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University. Send e-mails to dan@gillmor.com.

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