Friday, May 16, 2008

Should Internet Law Be Equated with Internet Ethics?

Yesterday a federal indictment was handed down in the "MySpace suicide" case that I've written about previously here in which a vengeful mother pretended to be a teen boy in order to get back at an adolescent girl who had been a foe of her daughter's, which many say contributed to the lovestruck girl's suicide. Obviously, this sadistic mom's conduct violates the entire digital parenting philosophy that I once tried to sum up in my "10 Principles for the Digital Family," but I'm not sure that the government's position makes sense, in that it continues a trend of criminalizing certain kinds of everyday online conduct, which in this case involves creating an Internet identity that is distinct from one's identity in the real world.

The indictment in U.S. v. Drew claims that the mother's violation of her click-through user's agreement constitutes fraud. But, as The New York Times points out in "Woman Indicted in MySpace Suicide Case," law faculty who specialize in fraud, such as Rebecca Lonergan, are describing the indictment as extremely "aggressive." In contrast, coverage in The Los Angeles Times indicates little problem with setting this precedent, even though "there was some ambiguity as to whether MySpace or Megan was the victim," and the powers of the state were "invoking a criminal statute more commonly used to go after computer hackers or crooked government employees."

Of course, many end user license agreements contain clauses that subject the subscribers and purchasers to all kinds of punitive and unreasonable conditions, so these disempowering click-through contracts hardly meet the test of mutual consideration. Furthermore, giving false information about yourself is one of the basic ways to maintain online hygiene and to protect yourself from having private information sold to marketers without your consent or even falling prey to identity thieves. Have I violated the agreements of the various social networking sites of which I am a member by saying that I was born in 1910? There can be other good reasons for dissimulation, as political dissidents in some countries certainly know.

Unfortunately, there is political capital to be earned on both sides of the aisle by focusing on linking online solicitation to suicide, as in other cases in which policy-making on the Internet focuses exclusively on criminalization rather than infrastructure building. It could be argued that this is also the case for legislation that has been dubbed Suzy's Law, which adds constraints to online speech in order to deter spreading information that may promote suicide. Although supporters of the law may have well-meaning mental health goals, there are significant reasons to have reservations about yet another victim-name law.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been wondering myself about a YouTube ethics around using this platform to reveal secrets. An ethics seems hard, as it seems to depend upon whose secrets secrets. Two recent scandals around women revealing the real identities of their rapists/abusive husbands interestingly sit against the U of Iowa grad students who used the site to reveal their labor gripes against their Department:

5:00 PM  
Blogger Liz Losh said...

These are interesting cases and complicated from both an ethical and a legal standpoint. Thanks for drawing my attention to them.

It looks like YouTube is now playing a role in divorce cases with prenuptial agreements as well, at least according to

Certainly, having YouTube merely pull down the graduate student videos really short-circuits any deliberative activity that could take place around them.

I have a chapter on whistleblowers and online communication in the VP book, but this question of _whose_ secret is revealed makes the whole subject a lot more complicated.

9:32 PM  

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