Posts Tagged ‘facebook’

MySpace Judge Agrees with Us

Friday, July 3rd, 2009

 

Remember the Lori Drew case? She’s the mom who was convicted last Thanksgiving for creating a fake MySpace persona, which she then used to harass a teenaged girl until the girl committed suicide.

After she was convicted, we argued that her conviction stretched the meaning of the statute too far. Here’s what we wrote:

The underlying statute, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, is a federal law intended to prevent hacking. Drew created a fictitious MySpace account, which was used to harass the girl. In doing so, Drew violated MySpace’s terms of service, though she apparently never read them. By violating the terms of service, Drew got unauthorized access to MySpace’s servers, and the prosecution went out on a limb to argue that this technically violated the CFAA.

But does it really?

Plenty of pundits are now doubting that the verdict will survive an appeal. Congress clearly intended the law to criminalize hacking into someone else’s computer. That’s different from creating a fictitious screen name — a very common and socially acceptable occurrence.

Terms of service are conditions imposed by websites which govern permissible use, and which almost always prescribe penalties that may be imposed for violations. These penalties normally range from warnings and temporary disabling of access, to permanent denial of access. The relationship is essentially contractual.

But if the prosecution’s theory is upheld on appeal, then breaching such conditions would have criminal consequences.

Criminalizing this kind of behavior isn’t exactly far-fetched. Crime is essentially that behavior which society considers so threatening that the guilty must be punished with a restriction on liberty or a loss of property. The existence of a civil remedy does not preclude something from being criminal — a thief is civilly liable to return what he stole, but still faces jail regardless. And there may be something to an argument for criminalizing the false personas on social networking sites frequented by minors, to protect society from predators.

But that’s clearly not what Congress was trying to do here. Furthermore, the prosecution’s stretched interpretation is just too overbroad. Rather than being narrowly tailored to focus on those who violate the TOS of a child-used site for the purpose of committing a nefarious or dangerous crime, the prosecution’s theory simply criminalizes all violations of any site’s TOS agreement. A court of appeals is likely to find that an improper application of the law.

Lori Drew was scheduled to be sentenced today. (Well, technically yesterday. Thursday. We’re still working, so it’s still Thursday to us.)

But she wasn’t sentenced. Instead, Judge Wu threw out her conviction. According to CNN, he refused to uphold the jury’s verdict because the guilty verdict would set a bad precedent that anyone who violates a site’s TOS could also be found guilty of a misdemeanor. Criminalizing all violations of a site’s TOS agreement is not what the law is designed to do. Because it technically allows such improper application of the law, it is probably unconstitutional for vagueness.

This was just an oral decision. Wu is expected to issue his written decision soon.

Great minds think alike!

No More Google Mistrials: A Proposal for Courts to Adapt to Modern Life

Wednesday, March 18th, 2009

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“Google mistrials” are in the news again. Every few years, we hear about mistrials being declared because jurors were caught researching the facts online. It’s not a new phenomenon — there have always been jurors who felt the urge to find out for themselves what really happened — all that’s new is how easy the Internet makes it. And even Google mistrials have been happening for many years.

Jurors naturally want to investigate on their own. It’s normal. After all, the whole purpose of a jury is to arrive at an official version of the facts, jurors do take this job seriously, and they commonly feel hamstrung by rules of evidence that keep them from seeing the whole picture. Taking the initiative can be thought of as a means to achieving true justice. Such initiative is even the major plot device of that old classic “Twelve Angry Men,” commonly seen as a drama that epitomizes true justice.

The justice system, on the other hand, has evolved over the centuries to ensure justice in quite a different way. Instead of allowing trial juries to investigate the facts, the courts carefully limit the facts to which juries are exposed. Before being spoon-fed to the jurors, facts must first be sifted through rules of admissibility, to ensure that only relevant and reliable information is made available. Then both sides in the trial get to challenge, cross-examine and argue about that evidence. This testing by fire, even if intended to obfuscate rather than clarify the facts, is generally seen as serving the higher goal of a just result.

So unlike “Twelve Angry Men,” when a juror in real life goes out into the world beyond the courtroom, and finds evidence that was not presented at trial which could affect the outcome of the case, justice is deemed to have been frustrated. A mistrial is declared, and everyone has to do it over again. The judge, jury, court employees, lawyers, witnesses and parties will have wasted their time, effort and money.

But it used to take some effort to cause such mistrials, and so they were rare. Jurors may have WANTED to go out and do some research on their own, but few had the time and resources to match their inclination. Nowadays, however, everyone is a research specialist. In everyone’s pocket is a miniature Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a phone or PDA with full access to the Internet. Looking up individuals, events, photos, aerial images, detailed maps, weather, weapons, forensics, public records, and practically anything else is now fast, effortless and free.

There are no obstacles to such research, and so everyone does it. And they do it all the time. It’s not a here-and-there thing like visiting a library; it’s part of the habits of people’s daily lives. The simple fact is that it is something people do naturally and routinely throughout their day. Telling someone not to go online these days is as inane as telling them they can’t talk about their day with their spouses and best friends.

Beyond simple inanity, ensuring that jurors comply with a no-Googling rule is simply unworkable in real life. Access to the Internet is ubiquitous in modern life. It’s everywhere. Unless courts are willing to confiscate all wireless devices of any sort at the courthouse, and then sequester every jury at great expense to ensure that they don’t access the web after hours, then courts are simply not going to be able to prevent Googling from happening. Jurors are going to be instructed not to do it, they’re going to do it anyway in ever-increasing numbers, and so mistrials are going to happen in ever-increasing numbers.

It’s time for modern jurisprudence to catch up to modern reality. Independent juror research simply cannot be grounds for mistrial any more.

It’s not such a stretch, by the way. We already allow jurors to take into the jury room any common knowledge and common sense they already possess. In fact, we insist on it. All that would be required of the law would be a presumption that anything available on the net is common knowledge.

That’s a simple fix, and an intellectually honest one.

What would that mean? That would mean that lawyers would have to be a little more diligent in investigating their cases. They’re going to have to presume that anything on the Internet is common knowledge. So if that common knowledge is wrong, they’re first going to have to realize it’s out there, and then debunk it.

So what? That’s what any good lawyer does now, anyway. If there’s a common perception that happens to be a mis-perception, then effective counsel will do their best to educate the jury to at the very least minimize the effects of that misperception. We do this all the time, in all sorts of cases. Prosecutors try to nullify the perception that circumstantial evidence is somehow less reliable than direct evidence. Defense attorneys try to undo the perception that an eyewitness identification is as damning as it gets. There are tons of examples for every kind of case that goes to trial.

The risk, of course, is that by attempting to debunk an attitude, one may merely highlight it to a juror who wouldn’t have otherwise have thought it. That’s the same risk we take now. We try to minimize it during jury selection, if we can. And we judge the risks and take the course we judge to be best.

In short, the law needs to accommodate modern reality by treating data commonly available as if it people were commonly aware of it. The law may already do so, and the courts just haven’t gotten around to realizing it yet. It really may be nothing more than a simple matter of re-interpretation of a longstanding rule.

So no more Google mistrials, please. Efficiency would be improved, and justice would be served.

MySpace Conviction Probably Exceeded Scope of Law

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008

 

We were away last week, achieving an unqualified victory in a case brought by the Antitrust Division. But while we were gone, Lori Drew got convicted of three criminal counts of accessing a computer without authorization. Drew is the mom who was accused of harassing a teenaged girl over the Internet to the point where the girl committed suicide.

The underlying statute, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, is a federal law intended to prevent hacking. Drew created a fictitious MySpace account, which was used to harass the girl. In doing so, Drew violated MySpace’s terms of service, though she apparently never read them. By violating the terms of service, Drew got unauthorized access to MySpace’s servers, and the prosecution went out on a limb to argue that this technically violated the CFAA.

But does it really?

Plenty of pundits are now doubting that the verdict will survive an appeal. Congress clearly intended the law to criminalize hacking into someone else’s computer. That’s different from creating a fictitious screen name — a very common and socially acceptable occurrence.

Terms of service are conditions imposed by websites which govern permissible use, and which almost always prescribe penalties that may be imposed for violations. These penalties normally range from warnings and temporary disabling of access, to permanent denial of access. The relationship is essentially contractual.

But if the prosecution’s theory is upheld on appeal, then breaching such conditions would have criminal consequences.

Criminalizing this kind of behavior isn’t exactly far-fetched. Crime is essentially that behavior which society considers so threatening that the guilty must be punished with a restriction on liberty or a loss of property. The existence of a civil remedy does not preclude something from being criminal — a thief is civilly liable to return what he stole, but still faces jail regardless. And there may be something to an argument for criminalizing the false personas on social networking sites frequented by minors, to protect society from predators.

But that’s clearly not what Congress was trying to do here. Furthermore, the prosecution’s stretched interpretation is just too overbroad. Rather than being narrowly tailored to focus on those who violate the TOS of a child-used site for the purpose of committing a nefarious or dangerous crime, the prosecution’s theory simply criminalizes all violations of any site’s TOS agreement. A court of appeals is likely to find that an improper application of the law.

Will Internet Anonymity Be the Next Federal Crime?

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008

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Jury selection began today in what many are calling a landmark trial in the new field of Internet law. As the first case of its kind, U.S. v. Lori Drew could have a far-reaching impact on the future of anonymity on the web.

Lori Drew faces federal counts of Conspiracy and of Accessing Computers Without Authorization. Drew is charged with creating a false Internet identity on the social networking site MySpace, posing as a teenage boy. Prosecutors say she then used that false identity to befriend a depressed 13-year-old girl, a former friend of Drew’s daughter, and then began to harass the girl with hurtful messages. The girl hanged herself after allegedly receiving the messages, including one telling her that “the world would be a better place without you.”

Although Drew is not charged with the girl’s death, U.S. District Judge George Wu ruled last Friday that evidence of the girl’s suicide could be introduced by prosecutors. He stated that any prejudice would not be unfair, because the fact that the girl committed suicide is common knowledge, and jurors would be instructed that Drew is not charged with causing the suicide. Although the events took place in Missouri, the trial is being held in Los Angeles, where the MySpace servers are located.

The case is being closely watched, as Drew is being prosecuted under a law normally used to target computer hackers, and expanding the reach of the law could create criminal liability for many.

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act prohibits accessing protected computers without authorization. The prosecution seeks to expand the scope of this prohibition, to include violating the terms of service of a website that prohibits people from misrepresenting their identity through false accounts.

Using a false name to register with a website is commonplace. Anonymity is sought for a variety of reasons, most of them socially acceptable. Reasons range from fears of identity theft, protection from predators, avoiding spammers and scammers, and other justifiable concerns in this high-tech age. There are malicious reasons, too, such as concealing the identity of individuals committing crimes online.

The jurors being selected today will be asked to determine whether violating MySpace terms of service, by registering a false user profile, is a federal crime. They may well do so, especially now that they will hear that this particular false profile was allegedly used to harass a young girl to the point where she committed suicide.

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