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MySpace-related Suicide Puts Focus on Cyber Bullying

May 16, 2008 at 6:45 PM EST
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A Missouri woman was indicted on federal charges related to the suicide of a 13-year-old MySpace user this week. An Internet and privacy lawyer considers the world of cyber bullying and how the law and the use of the Web intersect.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, a Media Unit look at a case of online bullying. And once again to Jeffrey Brown.

TINA MEIER, Mother of Megan Meier: She deserves the life sentence that our family has been given, and 20 years is unfortunately not enough for her.

JEFFREY BROWN: That was the reaction of Tina Meier to news that a Missouri neighbor had been indicted in Los Angeles for cyber-bullying Meyer’s daughter, Megan.

Megan hanged herself in 2006 after receiving an online message on her MySpace page, supposedly from a boy named Josh Evans, that, quote, “the world would be better off without her.”

Investigators say “Josh” was really Lori Drew, the mother of a classmate and former friend of Megan’s.

Drew, who has denied any involvement, now faces charges of conspiracy and computer fraud.

And with me to look at this case and the state of cyber law in this area is Christopher Wolf, an Internet and privacy attorney in private practice. He also chairs the International Network Against Cyberhate, a group based in Amsterdam that works against discrimination on the Internet.

Welcome to you.

CHRISTOPHER WOLF, Internet and Privacy Lawyer: Thank you, Jeff.

Initially, difficult to prosecute

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, this case got a lot of attention when the suicide occurred, but it was not clear, if I remember right, that it would proceed to a legal matter. Is that because the state of the law is so unformed or new?

CHRISTOPHER WOLF: Well, everyone was justifiably outraged when they read about what Lori Drew did that resulted in the suicide of Megan Meier. It was a despicable thing to do.

The prosecutors in Missouri apparently looked at the facts, and they looked at the law, and they couldn't find a fit. There's such a thing in criminal law known as an outrage prosecution, where the public is demanding a prosecution and prosecutors move forward.

The Missouri prosecutors appeared to resist that, and that's why there wasn't a prosecution there. And the thing basically went to sleep, in terms of any kind of legal activity.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, federal prosecutors step in from Los Angeles. Why? And what are they charging her with?

CHRISTOPHER WOLF: Well, as to why, I really can't tell you, because what they did is extremely unusual. They used a law called the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which was passed to deal with people hacking into computers to either steal information or cause mischief to the computer system.

And basically what they've said is that Lori Drew, by falsifying the identity of someone named Josh, to be able to join MySpace, by lying to MySpace in order to become a member, and then interact with Megan Meier, effectively hacked into a computer system, and that that kind of fraudulent activity is a federal crime, according to the prosecutors in Los Angeles.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that's even though the Missouri state prosecutors didn't want to go that route?

CHRISTOPHER WOLF: Well, that's right. This is not a prosecution for causing the death of Megan Meier. It's a prosecution for accessing a protected computer, which is a federal crime.

It's the first time that that statute has ever been used for anything close to this. And if you think about it, the repercussions are pretty stunning, because any time anybody reads the terms of service that prohibit a whole range of activity and does something in violation of the terms of service, according to this indictment, that would be a federal criminal offense.

Internet hate not a priority

JEFFREY BROWN: So there's not a federal law against cyber-bullying, per se?

CHRISTOPHER WOLF: No.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is there even a legal definition of cyber-bullying?

CHRISTOPHER WOLF: Well, there is, and it's pretty easy to define. It's a constant and hate-filled attack on a person using the Internet or other means of electronic communication.

Twelve states now have added to their anti-bullying legislation the offense of cyber-bullying. And those states have instructed their school system that, when this happens, you must do something.

You must protect the child who's the victim of cyber-bullying, and you must have some punishment that is on the books in the school regulations, and you must have rules and regulations about appropriate use of Internet tools. More states should have that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, that's what I'm wondering. You were telling me before we started that you've been doing this Internet law since the advent of the Internet.

CHRISTOPHER WOLF: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, anybody of a certain age or parents of kids of a certain age -- and I'm in that category -- where we know kids are using MySpace, Facebook, all these social networking, and you see what's going on, the law is slowly developing around that, I guess?

CHRISTOPHER WOLF: Well, it is. And it's time now for the law to address the subject of hate on the Internet.

The Anti-Defamation League has developed a model legislation for states to adopt, like the ones that have adopted the 12 statutes. And it's time for all 50 states to do that.

But the broader issue of hate on the Internet has really taken a back seat to things like spam and obscenity and child predation, all admittedly important topics, but hate on the Internet has sort of fallen off the priority list. And things like the Megan Meier case suggest that it's really time for it to come back into the national agenda.

JEFFREY BROWN: One would think that there are First Amendment issues involved, as well. I mean, who decides what can be said and how?

CHRISTOPHER WOLF: Well, that's right. And yesterday I actually testified on the Senate side before Senator Cardin and we talked about that.

This is not an area where the government should regulate speech. Our First Amendment has an important role to play.

But the Internet industry, working with educators and working with NGOs like the Anti-Defamation League, as well as the International Network Against Cyberhate, ought to work together to educate parents and kids and to work with school systems to help kids protect themselves, but also to teach them to be better citizens online.

Kids should report cyber-bullying

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what steps do you advise to parents and young people if they see this or if they're the target of it?

CHRISTOPHER WOLF: Well, if kids are the target of cyber-bullying, they should immediately report it to their parents, and their parents should immediately report it to the school, because it's typically being done by a schoolmate or a classmate, and sometimes it's even being done over the school's Internet system.

JEFFREY BROWN: Unlike this case that we started with.

CHRISTOPHER WOLF: This is a very unusual case, the Megan Meier case, but it really serves as a wake-up call, with respect to the problem of cyber-bullying.

JEFFREY BROWN: And are companies like MySpace and others, are they taking action or able to take action to kind of patrol what goes on?

CHRISTOPHER WOLF: Well, you know, they're certainly able to take action. And, in my view, they ought to be playing a more proactive role to protect kids and to work with parents.

Now, they have been working with the attorneys general to stop child predation, to stop adults lurking online, preying on children. The next issue they ought to tackle certainly ought to be cyber-bullying.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, briefly, just to come back to this case, you said this was a kind of creative use of the law in this case. There is a question about whether it will stand up and where this case goes next.

CHRISTOPHER WOLF: Well, that's right. In the legal blogosphere, most legal experts think that this is a case that will not likely result in a conviction.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, Christopher Wolf, thank you very much.

CHRISTOPHER WOLF: Thank you for having me.