Recently, we at TheFeed were asked to cease using aliases and write our posts under our given names. After a few minutes of raucous ballyhoo and appeals to the powers-that-be, the writers of TheFeed resigned ourselves to saying goodbye to our much-beloved internet anonymity.
Soon, you may know our pain. While some would argue that this crazy virtual world of teh Internetz depends on anonymity, we all may soon find out what the 'nets will be like if everyone was suddenly held accountable for their words and virtual actions.
On May 15th, a Missouri woman was indicted on three charges of lying about who she was... to MySpace. The story leading to the accusations is long and twisted, and it begins with the death of a 13 year-old girl named Megan Meier—the girl who may change the internet forever.
THE GIRL WHO MAY CHANGE EVERYTHING
Megan Meier grew up in Dardenne Prarie Missouri, a small suburb of St. Louis. Her parents describe Megan as a "bubbly, goofy" girl, who liked swimming, boating, and fishing. She was a member of her 7th Grade Volleyball Team at Fort Zumwalt West Middle School in nearby O'Fallon, Missouri.
From early in her childhood, Megan suffered from psychological issues. She was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder and Depression. In the 3rd Grade, she contemplated suicide and had been seeing a therapist ever since. She considered herself overweight and had a contentious on-again-off-again friendship with a girl down the street.
Megan's parents, just in time for her 8th Grade Year, decided to transfer Megan from Fort Zumwalt to Immaculate Conception, a private school in Dardenne Prairie, in an effort to provide a more understanding and comfortable atmosphere for Megan.
As summer turned to fall in 2006, life seemed to be improving for Megan. Her depression appeared to be lifting, she had shed 20 pounds and school seemed to be going well. Since she appeared to be doing so much better, Megan's mother allowed her to open a MySpace account, an account Megan's parents would closely and rigorously monitor. Megan was actually not given the password to the account; only her parents had the ability to log in for her.
When Megan met Josh Evans in September of 2006, she didn't think things could get much better.
"Josh Evans", a 16 year-old boy, claims to have recently moved to nearby O'Fallon, Missouri and befriends Megan over MySpace. Megan is thrilled and comments to her mother repeatedly on how "hot" she thinks he is. Megan's mother allows the online friendship to continue under her supervision.
Megan's mother, Tina, would later say, "Megan had a lifelong struggle with weight and self-esteem [...] And now she finally had a boy who she thought really thought she was pretty."
Megan remarks that she thinks it's odd that "Josh" never asks for her phone number and when she asks for his, he says that he doesn't have a cell phone and they have not installed a land line yet.
October 15th, 2006:
"Josh Evans" breaks off the friendship via MySpace message by stating, "I don't know if I want to be friends with you anymore because I've heard that you are not very nice to your friends."
Megan's immediate response to "Josh" is, "What are you talking about?"
"Josh Evans" did not respond that night.
October 16th, 2006:
At school, Megan hands out invitations for her upcoming 14th birthday party. She returns home asks her mother if she can log into MySpace and check to see if "Josh" has responded. Tina, in a hurry to get Megan's younger sister to the orthodontist, logs in for Megan and prepares to leave.
"Evans" has responded with more upsetting messages. Tina, on her way out the door, tells Megan to log off. Megan promises that she will, saying, "Let me finish up."
Tina calls Megan from the orthodontist office to make sure that Megan has signed off. At this point, Megan is in tears, telling her mother, "They are all being so mean to me."
At this point, "Josh Evans" had been sharing private messages with some of Megan's other friends. Some friends joined in the cruel messages, making bulletins that would go out to everyone on their friends list with subject lines like, "Megan Meier is a slut" or "Megan Meier is fat."
Tina arrives home and finds Megan still at the computer. Tina gets Megan to stand up away from the computer and Tina reads the vulgar language her daughter had been using to respond the cruel attacks. She tells Megan, "I am so aggravated at you for doing this!"
As Megan leaves the room and heads upstairs for her bedroom, she yells at her mother, "You’re supposed to be my mom! You’re supposed to be on my side!"
Megan bumps into her father on the stairs, where she tells him what people had been saying about her over MySpace. He comforts her and tells her that it would be okay and that these people obviously don’t know her.
Twenty minutes later, Megan's parents enter her bedroom to find that Megan has hanged herself with a belt from her closet.
They immediately pull her down and her father attempts CPR while Tina calls for an ambulance.
October 17th, 2006:
Megan dies at the hospital. She is three weeks from turning 14.
Megan's father logs into his daughter's MySpace to read some the mean spirited messages for himself. The final message sent from Josh reads, "Everybody in O'Fallon knows who you are. You are a bad person and everybody hates you. Have a shitty rest of your life. The world would be a better place without you."
Naturally, Ron and Tina Meier attempt to contact "Josh Evans". By the next day, his MySpace account has been deleted. Later on that day, the Meiers travel down the street to visit the girl who had once been Megan's friend to comfort her and let her know that, despite the arguments the two girls sometimes had, Megan valued her friendship.
The girls' parents, Lori and Curt Drew, ask the Meiers to store a foosball table (a Christmas gift for one of the Drew children) in their garage. The Meiers agree.
Six weeks after the death of their daughter, they were called into their counselor's office in O'Fallon by a neighbor that they did not know very well. The story they were told when they arrived would be nearly unfathomable.
"Josh Evans" did not exist. The boy the Meiers felt was largely responsible for what happened to Megan was an invention. He was created by a woman in their neighborhood. A woman on their street. A woman named Lori Drew.
That’s right. The woman who was mother to Megan's on-again-off-again friend, the woman who had asked Ron and Tina to store a foosball table for them, was the creator and mastermind behind the non-existent "Josh Evans". Apparently, the character of "Josh Evans" had been created as a way for Lori to determine what bad things Megan might have been saying about her daughter.
The neighbor claimed to have discovered all this from her own daughter, who had "joined in on the joke." She even claims that on the night Megan died, while the ambulance was still at the Meier's, her daughter received a phone call from Lori Drew saying that something had happened to Megan and that it would be best not to mention the fake MySpace account.
Upon returning home from the meeting, the Meier’s took to the foosball table in their garage with an axe and a sledgehammer. They dumped the obliterated remains into a box and dropped it off on the driveway of the Drew’s with the message, "Merry Christmas" written on the side.
The story remained out of the media for over a year, as the FBI and County officials tried determine if there were grounds for a criminal case.
Steve Pokin of the St. Charles County Examiner published a story on Sunday, November 11, 2007 about the events surrounding the suicide of Megan Meier. The article stopped short of naming Lori Drew as the creator of the account, but the story caught like wildfire over the Internet. Bloggers the country over expressed outrage that nothing had been done for over a year to help Megan find "justice".
Based on the details of the story, it did not take long for the blogging community to find the name of Lori Drew. Within hours she was the focal point of the internet's hatred, blaming her for the death of the 13 year-old girl from Dardenne Prairie.
On December 3, 2007, St. Charles County, Missouri prosecutor Jack Banas revealed that he had reviewed the laws related to stalking, harassment, and child endangerment and couldn't find statutes allowing him to file charges against Lori Drew or anyone involved.
At this point, the outrage grew, hitting mainstream media outlets, such as CNN and ABC News.
Then, on May 15th, 2008, Lori Drew was indicted on Federal charges for her role in the MySpace hoax. She is charged with one count of Conspiracy and 3 counts of Accessing Protected Computers Without Authorization.
TRUTH AND CONSEQUENCES
This is where the story starts to affect us, the good people of The Internets, who thrive on offering up our unsolicited and often unwanted opinions on the general populace through a smoke screen of technology and anonymity. What does it mean for us if this woman, Lori Drew, is found guilty on all charges? She's been charged with "Accessing Protected Computers Without Authorization". The computers in question are the MySpace servers. She's being charged with lying to MySpace about her identity.
How many of you have lied about who you are online? How many have fudged the numbers on how old you are? Be honest, your MySpace profile says your 103 years-old, doesn't it? How about creating fake email addresses so you have a place to direct annoying SPAM emails you’d be otherwise inundated with should you be forced to cough up your genuine email domain? Imagine that each time you lied to a computer, you committed a felony.
Before we move much further on this issue, let's be clear about something. If Lori Drew is guilty of what she is accused of doing with the "Josh Evans" account, there is no defense for her actions. There is flat out no excuse for a grown woman to behave in such a manner toward a 13 year-old child. Should there be some sort of protection set up for people like Megan? Sure, but currently we really don't have anything in our legal system. What happened to Megan is a genuine tragedy that has touched a vast number of people out there, this contributor being one of them. Are we clear on this issue? Good. Now, let’s continue…
PRECEDENT COULD BE TEH SUXX0RZ
The precedent that could be created upon a conviction of Lori Drew is a scary one. Suddenly, people could find themselves accountable for anything they said on the Internet. Larger than that, what would happen to the practice of "screen names"? If lying about who you are on the Internet became a crime, would websites do away with screen names entirely?
We think not. Instead, websites would probably require verification of your identity and then they would tie that info to the screen name of your choosing. Of course, this information would be, theoretically, confidential. Still, many people don't want anyone to know who they really are online. The paranoia of identity in the online world comes from many sources.
Some people are terrified of "Identity Theft", convinced that if any online website has any sort of genuine information on them, they are at risk of financial ruin. Other people fear the dreaded "Online Predator", brought into the spotlight with segments like "To Catch a Predator" on Dateline NBC. Others simply want to keep their online and real identities completely separate.
Whether these fears are justified or magnified by media interested, what happens to people when they can no longer lie about who they are online?
Now, remember when I asked you earlier to think about every time you've ever lied about yourself on the Internet? And think about each of those times being a felony? Well, now what do you think about the charges against Lori Drew? Are you prepared to stop lying online? Are you prepared to give up the precious anonymity the World Wide Web provides each of its children? Are you willing to risk jail and losing the right to vote just to avoid some SPAM or not letting strangers know who you really are?
These aren't only rhetorical questions, either; they'll have hard and fast answers in a matter of months, depending on the outcome of the Megan Meier case.
Our judicial system is based primarily on precedent. Determining what is the proper legal course of action usually comes down to how it has been before. The Internet in its current form has only been around for approximately 15 years. Precedent and jurisdiction for online "crimes" is still being formed. On top of that, we're still trying to determine what all constitutes a cyber-crime.
The fact the Lori Drew was brought up on charges stemming from her lying to MySpace shows that authorities couldn't find any charges that would apply that directly reflect her behavior toward Megan Meier. What would they charge her with? Being mean? As despicable as it may be, it's not illegal to be jerk. Even to a kid.
So the Federal authorities, under immense pressure to find something to charge Lori Drew with, decided on three counts of Accessing Protected Computers Without Authorization and one count of Conspiracy. The indictments were handed down in Los Angeles, California where MySpace (the "victim" computers) is based.
Ironically, much of the public outrage that created the pressure on Federal authorities to call in the Grand Jury came from online sources. It was the online community that exposed Lori Drew as the woman behind the MySpace hoax. It was the online community that raised their voices in protest, calling the lack of criminal charges against Mrs. Drew a "miscarriage of justice." However, it is this same community who may lose one of the things they love most about the virtual world.
Well, where do we go from here? Sadly, there does not appear to be much chance of any criminal charges being filed in relation to the actions taken against Megan Meier which, pretty undeniably, led to her suicide. Sure, the indictments handed down might be the only charges that can, in a bizarre and what some might call backwards way of reading the law, be filed against Lori Drew, might it be best to instead focus on keeping this sort of thing from happening again rather than try and achieve some sort of retribution?
Believe me, my heart and soul goes out to Ron and Tina Meier. The death of one's child is greatest loss one could experience. It seems to contradict the very essence of life and nature. As despicable as Lori Drew's actions are, the effort being made to send her to prison (even if just for few weeks) is creating a fog, keeping us from truly learning from this experience and growing stronger from it.
I do not think anything can be done to bring "justice" for Megan Meier. I fear that she is destined to join a list of countless others who sadly fell victim before the system was in place to help them.
We, as a community have two ways we can handle this. We can stay where we are: Angry, outraged, and obsessed with finding "justice" in the forms of questionable charges and means of retribution. Or we can look forward, and try to find meaning in the tragedy.
Of course, as soon as the word regulation comes into an argument, it becomes a very sticky situation. Sure, we do not want to limit our freedom of speech in any way, but we still must find methods for people to be responsible for their actions. The First Amendment protects your right to say what you will, but it does not free you of responsibility for what you say. It is this fundamental reason why it's illegal to yell "Fire" in a theater. That's why it is illegal to say "Kill the President!"
While we can never outlaw being an a**hole, we can regulate the behavior between adults and minors. We have precedent for that. It's against the law to even engage in sexually explicit dialogue with a minor in certain circumstances. A 13 year old child is not legally responsible for their actions in regards to violence and sexuality according to our legal system. Thus, shouldn't that extend to violence against themselves. If an adult told a child to go out and kill someone and they did, that adult would be charged in a heart beat. What if that adult told the child to kill themselves?
We're at a point where we need to have a system of order for the online world. The Internet is a different animal than the real world. We cannot expect laws to be as fitting there and they are outside of the virtual. But we have to be careful. The easy way through this is to outlaw all the things we don't like about the Internet, which some people have obviously tried to do. But hard and fast regulation isn't the answer either. We have to be delicate, as delicate as our founding fathers were when drafting the laws that we now find sadly inadequate for the new, online world of information.