May 15, 2008

Federal MySpace Indictment May Threaten Web "Anonymity"

Greetings. Back in January, I discussed (Can You Go to Prison for Lying to a Web Site?) the tragic case of a 13-year-old girl who committed suicide after receiving upsetting messages via MySpace, and the efforts of authorities to find some way to charge the senders of the messages, based on MySpace's location in Beverly Hills.

Of particular concern to me was the apparent plan to declare that providing false information in a profile (e.g. to MySpace) was a crime.

I haven't seen the actual indictment yet, but word is that an L.A. Federal Grand Jury has handed down one count of conspiracy and three counts of "accessing protected computers without authorization" -- the latter counts presumably focused on the MySpace profile.

I continue to offer my sympathies in this situation. But I must also again proactively warn that creating a precedent declaring that the providing of false information in a Web site profile is in and of itself a crime would be terrible public policy. It would put the privacy of millions of law-abiding Web users at risk, who frequently choose not to provide accurate information at Web sites that they visit, simply to protect their own personal and/or financial privacy and security.

While there is very little if any true anonymity on the Net, we should all be concerned about the rising tide of demands to force all Internet usage to be verifiably identified, regardless of the seemingly laudable goals often associated with such efforts.


Addendum: Just to be completely clear on a key point -- it's quite possible that MySpace could have a cause for action in this case based on violations of their Terms of Service. However, the federal "accessing protected computers" statute was designed to protect against hardcore computer hacking and related system penetrations, not for cases of this sort, and this law has never before been applied in this kind of situation.

Such "stretching" of the law, apparently in an attempt to mollify public opinion, is highly problematic and risks significant negative collateral damage to law-abiding Internet users in the long run.


Posted by Lauren at May 15, 2008 12:46 PM | Permalink
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