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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Cyberbullying Mom Got Just What She Deserved

The Lori Drew case was not a straightforward instance of cyberstalking, in which someone, usually with a false name and picture, befriends someone else on MySpace or Facebook, or some other social medium – usually, a vulnerable young teenage girl - with the goal of arranging a meeting with the new friend, in person, for whatever nefarious purpose. The remedy for this sort of cyberstalking is never meet a person face to face that you know only online, unless it is in a very public, safe place.

The Lori Drew cyberbullying instance was something different, although it occurred because of the same inability for anyone to know who their online friends really are, unless they already know them off-line.

The background of the case is pretty well known: According to Lori Drew, a 49-year old mother, her 13-year old neighbor, Megan Meier, was spreading nasty rumors about Drew’s daughter. Lori Drew exacted revenge. She created the false MySpace identity of "Josh Evans" on MySpace, and there befriended Megan Meier. "Josh" pretended to fall in love with Megan. And when the 13-year old was convinced of "his" love, Josh/Lori emailed Megan that "the world would be a better place without you." Megan, who suffered from depression, hung herself (see Channel Web for more details).

Local prosecutors were unable to get an indictment against Drew in Missouri, where she and Megan Meiers lived. But Federal prosecutors were able to indict her in Los Angeles (headquarters of Fox, which owns MySpace) on three counts of illegally accessing computers (misdemeanors) and one felony count of conspiracy under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The jury found her guilty of the first three, lesser charges.

As Kim Zenter pointed out in Wired.com, the prosecution was based on a "novel" equation of the use of MySpace to harass (in violation of its "terms-of-service" agreement) and "hacking" as prohibited under the Federal law. Although MySpace supported the prosecution, numerous legal experts and civil libertarians objected, and although I almost always agree with them (see my Flouting of the First Amendment), in this case I do not, and think the verdict, even for just the misdemeanors, creates an important precedent. Using false identifies for fun, role playing, and non-deceptive business is fine. But using a false identity to abuse someone – especially an adult abusing a child – is unacceptable, and harassment is not protected by the First Amendment in any case. New new media empower us in all ways, not only good but bad, including a parent’s understandable anger at anyone, including someone else’s child, who is causing any grief to her child. But we as society need to create whatever obstacles we can to prevent, stop, and punish any acting on this anger through the easy avenues of whatever media.

In some ways the most disturbing part of what happened to Megan Meiers is that she did not fall prey to "traditional" cyberstalking – she did not die because she foolishly met an online friend in person at some private place. Indeed, she did nothing wrong or foolish at all – other than falling in love with a "boy" on MySpace.

What can we do to protect our children from this kind of potentially deadly abuse?
Other than keeping them offline completely, or forbidding them to be "friends" with anyone that they do not already know – neither of which is likely to succeed in practice – the only remedy is to hold adults accountable, as the jury did with Lori Drew.

But children can also be abusive to other children on MySpace and elsewhere online, and, in the end, there is no law or enforcement than can protect us from our worst instincts, in new media, old media, or anyplace else.

music and interview with Truth on Earth, fighting cyberbullying with their music
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