Why the Tragedy of Megan Meier and Lori Drew is Not About Technology

Photo: Megan MeierProsecutors in Los Angeles have brought criminal charges against Lori Drew, the 44-year-old woman who was the focus of outrage around the tragic death of Megan Meier. Since there is no law against cyberbullying, the prosecutors construed that when Drew registered under a false name, she was essentially making unauthorized use of MySpace’s computer system – which is illegal under a decades old anti-hacking law.

There are two reasons why this approach will do more harm than good.

This indictment misdirects concern from where it could actually be of benefit.

  • Questionable legal actions divert the discussion of this issue away from mental health concerns toward technology. Megan Meier was being medicated for clinical depression – the problem here is less about social networking than a breakdown in mental health care.
  • It ignores that both participants lied to use MySpace – Drew created a fictional profile, Meier lied about her age to use the service. Megan’s mother was aware she was using the service to become involved with a much older boy – which could have been troublesome in light of her mental health issues.

Additionally, it is alarming that website terms of use, which might not pass legal muster in civil courts, are being relied upon to define criminal circumstances.

  • It criminalizes violations of website terms of use, parts of which would likely not be legally enforceable in civil court. This makes the application of the law difficult to predict.
  • It effectively criminalizes registering to write under an assumed name on the web. Anonymous speech has been found to be constitutionally protected.

This is a transfixing and sad story, but making it about technology lets society off too easily. It’s more convenient to blame this situation on one bad person and then twist the law to punish them. Knee-jerk responses won’t criminalize malice, stupidity, or parental neglect away. But they do threaten personal liberties, and extend a legal trend of criminalizing what would otherwise be civil issues.

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