January 08, 2008

Can You Go to Prison for Lying to a Web Site?

Greetings. You've probably heard the tragic story of the 13-year-old girl who committed suicide after being spurned by a MySpace identity she thought was a 16-year-old boy, but that actually was a profile created by the mother of a neighborhood parent.

It's a sad event indeed, and the perpetrator certainly deserves condemnation, even though a suicide was not a reasonably predictable outcome of the very unfortunate exchange.

Prosecutors in Missouri, where the girl lived, were unable to find a statute that would apply in such a case, but federal prosecutors here in L.A. (MySpace is based locally in Beverly Hills) are reportedly exploring prosecuting the parent under federal wire fraud statutes -- which can carry penalties of up to 20 years in prison -- apparently for not being truthful in the associated MySpace profile.

Much as I understand the emotions in play, such a move could potentially carry awesome negative consequences for the open use of the Internet. If anyone reading this blog entry has never provided false information about their name, age, sex, location, or other characteristics to a Web site, you should definitely be considered for a sainthood somewhere down the line.

The precedent that could be set by prosecuting a social networking profile that contained false information could strike a blow to the basic concepts of anonymity that protect Internet users from a wide variety of privacy-invasive practices.

While one could argue that prosecutors would only go after egregious cases, we also know that prosecutorial overreaching and misconduct are not infrequent occurrences.

If this particular sad case becomes an excuse to squash anonymity on the Internet, by criminalizing the creation of pseudonym-identities in situations where the commission of crimes is not contemplated, we will be entering into very dangerous territory indeed.

There have already been legislative efforts to require verifiable ID for social networking sites, which could rather easily evolve into an "Internet driver's license" and requirements that virtually everyone on the Net be provably identified at all times online. This would primarily push "undesirable" activities totally underground and do even more damage, but the political attractiveness of such an approach might be undeniable among the usual suspects.

Attempts to blame and constrain the Internet in response to human tragedies are almost always misguided and replete with the potential for widespread collateral damage. They're traps that we should do our utmost to avoid, even in -- especially in -- the most emotionally heartrending of cases.


Posted by Lauren at January 8, 2008 03:11 PM | Permalink
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