Monday, December 01, 2008

Different Worlds and the Lori Drew Case

As things currently stand with this cyberbullying case, the defendant has been acquitted of felony charges but found guilty of misdemeanors. What's a bit unusual is that the prosecution used a federal anti-hacking law. As Chris Soghoian writes on CNET:
The specifics of the Lori Drew case are messy and emotional. The important fact is that there is no federal cyberbullying statute, so the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles turned to a novel interpretation of existing computer hacking laws to try to punish the woman. The general idea is that in creating terms of service, a Web site owner specifies the rules of admission to the site. If someone violates any of those contractual terms, the "access" to the Web site is done without authorization, and is thus hacking.
As a result, we're seeing a huge divide between what I'll call the "silicon valley crowd" (even if lots of the plugged-in techies live elsewhere) and "everyone else" in their opinions about the case.

For their part, much of the commentary at places like CNET and Groklaw is apoplectic about the guilty verdict, even as a misdemeanor. The issue (which I'm sympathetic to myself) is that violating a Web site's term of service should not be a violation of the law. As a practical matter, we're not seeing the end of the Internet as we know it; no one is going to prosecute you for shaving a few pounds off your weight in an online profile. But it is a troubling precedent.

However, what's striking to me is the level of outrage of everyone else--even the "everyone else" that's actively engaged enough with online sites to leave comments. But this outrage is at the dismissal of the felony charges. What matters is punishing a person who behaved very badly with tragic consequences, not defending somewhat esoteric legal principles. In a lot of comments, I sense genuine puzzlement (and anger) directed at people who place the right to online anonymity higher than the morally "right" deciusion in this case.

If things remain as they are, this case provides an unfortunately good example of the legal saying that "hard cases make bad law."

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