Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Creating another e-mail account or registering with MySpace, friendster or Facebook? Beware!

Like some of you, I have several e-mail accounts. My main e-mail is gtgalacio@yahoo.com (which I use 99.99% of the time) but I also needed to have several e-mail accounts for my different websites and blogs. In creating these accounts however, I have not supplied false entries during the registration process. Okay, okay, I know some of you are wondering what this post is all about, so let me give you the background facts.

The MySpace suicide case

In 2006, Lori Drew, a 49-year-old mother from Missouri, USA, used the highly popular MySpace social networking site and a false persona to torment Megan Meier, a 13-year-old girl. (MySpace reportedly has more than 200 million registered users.) Drew, allegedly acting in behalf of her own daughter, pretended to be a 16-year-old boy (with the fictitious name Josh Evans), feigned romantic interest in Megan who lived in the same community, and then jilted her. Megan, according to media reports, had been suffering from depression due to her weight problems. Megan ultimately committed suicide by hanging herself in October 2006 shortly after receiving a dozen or more hurtful messages from Josh, her non-existent love interest, one of which stated that the world would be better off without her.

Cause and effect; Drew could not be charged criminally under existing laws

When news broke out about what Lori Drew did, there was outrage not only in Megan’s community but also across the United States. But legal experts like Jeffrey Toobin and Mark Geragos explained in CNN news programs that under the existing laws and based on the principle of causation, there was no way Drew could be charged criminally. These experts pointed out that it was nearly impossible to make a cause and effect link between what Drew did and Megan’s suicide. They said that reprehensible as the actions of Drew were, there was just no way she could be charged criminally. Some people (like impassioned CNN news anchors) have thus argued that a civil case, instead of a criminal case, could be used against Drew.

Proximate cause

Speaking of causation, Filipino law students have memorized the maxim which goes like this: “El que es causa dela causa, es causa del mal causado.” In English, that means “he who is the cause of the cause, is the cause of the evil caused.” This is the legal principle of proximate cause. In layman’s term, it means that the person who caused something bad to happen is the person who shoud be charged in court.

A novel way of charging Drew with Megan's death; violation of the MySpace terms of service is a crime

Despite the legal dilemma however, Lori Drew has now been indicted on federal charges by a Los Angeles grand jury on one count of conspiracy and three counts of accessing protected computers without authorization to get information used to inflict emotional distress on Megan.

Federal prosecutors used a novel interpretation of a computer hacking law to charge Drew for Megan’s death. The prosecutors said that “by helping create a MySpace account in the name of someone who didn't exist, Lori Drew, violated MySpace’s terms of service and thus illegally accessed protected computers.” The MySpace terms prohibited false registration information (like using a fictitious name), solicitation of personal information from anyone under 18 and use of any information gathered from the Web site to “harass, abuse, or harm another person.”

Serious implications of this novel approach

There is no question that what Lori Drew allegedly did is reprehensible to the utmost degree, and a way had to found to charge her criminally in court. Legal experts are warning however that this novel approach could criminalize acts such as creating e-mail accounts or posting information under fictitious names. These experts say that creating e-mail accounts or registering with an Internet service with fictitious names or entries are sometimes resorted to for legitimate purposes like avoiding spam and protecting privacy.

As reported by Associated Press writer Anick Jesdanun, “This new interpretation also gives a business contract the force of a law: Violations of a Web site's user agreement could now lead to criminal sanction, not just civil lawsuits or ejection from a site.” As further reported, this case gives rise to questions and issues regarding free speech and freedom of expression. Drew’s lawyer is reportedly preparing to question the Constitutionality of this charge.

Whatever the outcome of this Myspace suicide case, this tragic incident should be some sort of warning for (1) people who create numerous e-mail accounts at the drop of hat, or register with Internet services using false information; and (2) for people who respond enthusiastically and emotionally to e-mails without really knowing for sure who is sending them.

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