Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Thoughts on the Lori Drew conviction

I think the most complete summation of the Lori Drew case is the Wikipedia page on Megan Meier. Short summary: a teenage girl (Megan) killed herself after receiving bullying-style messages on Myspace from a person she believed to be a 16-year old boy ("Josh Evans"), but was in fact a fake account created by the mother ("Lori Drew") of one of her schoolfriends ("Sarah Drew"). Lori has since been charged and convicted, although the charges brought against her don't really seem to match up with the crime: three charges of using a computer account without authorisation.

I can't really find myself in agreement with any of the interests who've presented an opinion on the issue so far. Neither the lawmakers pushing for "cyber-bullying" to be outlawed in the wake of this case nor the people thinking this case tells us nothing new seem to have it right, in my opinion.

danah boyd rightly notes the foolishness of blaming this occurence on computer technology, and highlights the problem of treating "cyber-bullying" as somehow distinct from and more dangerous than offline bullying: all that the internet has done in many instances is made what was a private activity between youth into a public one. Blaming the computer for what people do with them is stupid. But I disagree that this particular case is no different from what has gone before.

Perhaps I'm losing touch in my old age with how young people use the internet these days, but there is one aspect of this bullying case that is completely new to me. It is the fact that much of the emotional abuse inflicted on Megan Meier came from a "person" she was interacting with was a fake identity, and she didn't know that.

Regular internet users are deeply concerned that Drew's conviction was basically for violating that part of Myspace's TOS which states that people should not use a fake identity. I believe that they're right insofar as this could be used against anyone who adopts a pseudonym online at some point (i.e. a huge percentage of the entire Internet-using population). But that doesn't really conform to the situation in this case. The key, in my opinion, is not that the identity was fake, but that Megan Meier thought it was real.

According to the wiki article, the people behind the account went to a great deal of trouble at giving that impression of reality. They provided legitimate-sounding explanations to conceal possible avenues of exposing the account as fake: claiming that "Josh Evans" had no home phone (no contact outside Myspace), was home-schooled (no school to verify his identity with), and had only recently moved into town (accounting for a suspicious lack of long-term local friends). This is, to my mind, very different from some teen or twenty-something deciding to post under the moniker "Pete_Wentz_can_have_my_babies!!!!" instead of their real name. They should be treated differently.

So merely signing on under a different name should not have been grounds to prosecute Lori Drew. The fact that she did not disclose that the fake identity was fake - and took active steps to make it appear real - places it in a different - and worse - category than regular internet anonymity, in my opinion.

Here's where I get speculative: Meier's presumption of validity of "Josh Evans'" identity may have led to a perception of that identity's actions which would be different from what it would be if that identity was known to be fake. The faker could exploit this, inflicting emotional abuse of a type that is qualitatively different, perhaps quantitatively different as well, from what would otherwise be available. In other words, the fact that "Josh Evans" was a fake identity pretending to be a real one may have provided new and interesting ways of exacerbating the harassment. Did that upping of the ante push Megan Meier to suicide in a way that regular online bulling would not have done?

Despite that possibility, I hesitate to say that a blanket prohibition on such deceptive use of a fake identity should be enacted in law. I'm having difficulty seeing where adopting a fake identity and passing it off as real could have a positive benefit that could not still be provided by adopting a fake identity that is known to be a fake, but that may be simply becausing I'm focusing too much on the current situation. Should such identity fraud - not just anonymity, but actively passing a fake identity off as real - be illegal? Should it be illegal only under certain circumstances? if so, which ones? Should it perhaps not be a crime in itself, but be treated as an aggravating factor when considering the punishment given for other crimes that can involve it?

In any case, any such law should have no reference to technology in my opinion. It's the fact of identity fraud, not the use of computer technology to enable it, that is the issue. And I do think that some sort of law needs to be enacted: the very fact that vigilante justice was meted out against Lori Drew suggests to me that there is an interest in dispensing justice here which the law as currently written can't successfully serve.

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