Have you ever created a fictitious identity in order to access an Internet site? If so, you may have violated a federal criminal statute.
Megan Meier, aged 13, thought she was chatting online with a 16-year-old boy named Josh Evans. In reality, she was communicating with Lori Drew, a 49-year-old mother who resided in the same St. Louis neighborhood. Drew claims that she created the fake identity and set up a MySpace account in order to “gather intelligence” about what was being said at school about her teenage daughter.
Megan was being treated for Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and depression. Drew harassed, berated and belittled her. Megan”>Ten days ago, Drew was indicted by federal prosecutors who are employing a unique legal approach to hold her accountable for her actions and their consequences. Their novel approach has inspired legal commentators to recommend that “anyone who uses the Internet should be extremely wary.”
Unlike many states, Missouri did not have in place a law protecting its citizens from the type of conduct in which Drew is alleged to have engaged. So the U.S. Department of Justice has evoked the same law that is routinely used to prosecute computer hackers, charging Drew with one count of conspiracy and three counts of accessing protected computers without authorization in order to obtain information used to inflict emotional distress on Megan. MySpace’s terms of service prohibit users from providing false information when registering to use the site. The terms also bar solicitation of personal information from anyone under the age of 18 or to “harass, abuse, or harm another person.”
Drew faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison on each of the four counts. This is the first time the hacking statute has been used to pursue a case arising out of the use of a social networking site.
If the approach proves successful, routine Internet behavior would be criminalized since users routinely create accounts and post information using pseudonyms for completely legitimate reasons, not the least being a desire to maintain anonymity and protect their privacy. However, violations of a website’s user agreement could lead to criminal prosecution, in addition to civil liability and, much more commonly, cancellation or deletion of the account.
Among the concerns raised by the prosecution’s approach are free speech and other Constitutional considerations, including due process, given that the typical unsuspecting computer user has no idea that, by utilizing a fake identity, he/she may be committing a crime.
The case is a “wake up call” to all Internet users. When registering for an account on any Internet site, you should carefully review the terms of service prior to clicking “I agree” (or similar verbiage) because users will be deemed to have read and understood those provisions before proceeding to access the site. It also raises serious concerns about Internet safety and security, and serves as yet another reminder to all bloggers and users of social networking services to behave responsibly online. Your freedom may depend upon it.