MySpace Verdict Raises Identity Questions
A federal jury recently issued what computer fraud and legal experts are calling the country’s first cyberbullying verdict, convicting a Missouri woman of three misdemeanor charges of computer fraud for having misrepresented herself and tricking a teenager—who later committed suicide—into believing a MySpace acquaintance was real.
The woman, Lori Drew, posed as a teenage boy on MySpace two years ago and sent first friendly then menacing messages to 13-year-old Megan Meier, who killed herself in October 2006 shortly after receiving a message that said in part, “The world would be a better place without you.”
During the trial, prosecutors portrayed Drew as working in concert with her daughter, who was characterized as Meier’s nemesis.
MySpace’s terms of service require users to submit “truthful and accurate” registration information. Prosecutors charged that Drew’s creation of a phony profile amounted to “unauthorized access” to the site, a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986, which until now has been used almost exclusively to prosecute hacker crimes.
Although the Internet’s anonymity was key to Drew’s successful bullying of Meier, others say there are perfectly good reasons to construct false identities online, such as to protect against the theft of personal information or to ensure privacy when asking for advice or help.
“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,” says Sameer Hinduja, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Florida Atlantic University.
Many observers are now wondering if simply lying about one’s identity on the Internet could be a crime. Matthew L. Levine, a former federal prosecutor who is a defense lawyer in New York, says, “As a result of the prosecutor’s highly aggressive, if not unlawful, legal theory, it is now a crime to ‘obtain information’ from a Web site in violation of its terms of service. This cannot be what Congress meant when it enacted the law, but now you have it.”
The judge in the case heard motions in late December for its dismissal. Drew’s defense asserts among other things that she never read MySpace’s terms of service in detail.
Who’s Keeping Students Safe Online?
Fewer than 25 percent of educators feel comfortable teaching students how to protect themselves from online predators, cyberbullies and identity thieves, says a new study from the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA) and Educational Technology, Policy Research and Outreach (ET PRO).
Children ages 10-14 spend more time on the Internet than watching television, but the report, the 2008 National Cyber Ethics, Cyber Safety, Cyber Security (C3) Baseline Study, found that only a handful of states have education curriculum requirements for teaching children how to protect themselves online.
The study found that 90 percent of educators have received fewer than six hours of professional development on cybersecurity over the past year but that more than 60 percent are interested in learning more about cybersecurity, or C3, issues, with cybersafety rated as their highest priority.
Says Davina Pruitt-Mentle, executive director and senior research analyst for ET PRO, “The burden cannot be placed solely on our education system. From media to corporate America to our federal, state and local governments, a variety of partnerships need to be formed to protect our children.”