Internet dogs, dead children, bad laws

>> Friday, November 28, 2008

So a Federal jury has convicted Lori Drew of misdemeanors.

Ms. Drew, for those who have lost track, is the woman who, along with her daughter, perpetrated a childish hoax on a teenage girl--pretending to be a boy who liked said teenage girl. And then one of the participants in the hoax sent the teenage girl a message saying she wasn't liked anymore, and the teenager killed herself. And of course this is sad, and terrible, and a lesson to all parents: teach your child that nobody on the internet is necessarily who they claim to be, and supervise your kid's use of the online realm one way or another.

Note that the lesson, such as it is (and one would think it would be an obvious fact, and not something needing to be taught), is for the parents of depressed teens and not for those who perpetrate cruel online hoaxes. The number of people who participate in cruel hoaxes is perhaps infinite and unstoppable, and the majority won't be caught; and, in any case, if somebody is so bereft of conscience or pity that they pick on somebody half their age, well I doubt rumors of a distant criminal conviction would call them off. Some people are merely childish.

Let's acknowledge that Lori Drew isn't a terribly sympathetic person. She is old enough to know better, and should have counseled her daughter that whatever slights she perceived from the late teenager, Megan Meier, would be forgotten by the time she was 31, if not by the time she was 21. Lori Drew might have told her daughter--as useless as it would have been, because teenagers believe what they want to believe and every single scratch is a near-lethal goring--that she'd be lucky to remember the name "Megan Meier" by the time she was finished college; Drew didn't do this, and instead participated in a childish prank that led to a childishly depressing end.

But having acknowledged this, let us ask ourselves what kind of ridiculous world are we moving into if it's actually, unbelievably criminal to give a fake name when registering with an online service? Seriously--to give a fake name in the telecommunications realm is a tradition at least as old as the CB-radio "handle." To register a fake name with a social networking service or online company isn't exactly fraud, and prosecuting Lori Drew for possessing bad manners in the guise of prosecuting her fraud isn't merely moronic, it's dangerous.

Dangerous? Yes, because there are legitimate reasons one might publish under a pseudonym and register as a fictitious person. One might blog as a whistleblower or dissident, using the fact that nobody knows you're a dog online to make sure that nobody knows you're a corporate dog or a bureaucratic dog.

Hell, does somebody need that much of a reason? Maybe one registers online simply because he remembers an age when privacy was considered prudence, when a certain degree of anonymity was virtuous. You know: the days before Twitter and webcams and a constant telepresence; this isn't a criticism of the age, you know, after all, you're reading my blog right now, and my proper name, should you care, is at the bottom of this page with the rights and licensing boilerplate--I am kind of sort of part of the always-online age. But there are those who remember when privacy was something you didn't merely assume or expect but something you unironically claimed for yourself, and I can respect that.

I can understand why liars frustrate the service providers and the government. The former wants to sell you things and the latter is concerned you're a terrorist or pedophile (this is generous, I know--there are those who would say the latter wants to know what you're up to on general principle; I happen to be less paranoid than that, not because I'm naïve or an optimist, but because I cynically don't think government actually has the wherewithal to keep track of every single person's computer use with any degree of precision like some kind of Orwellian über-state; I'm sure they would if they could, but they have trouble finding their collective balls beneath their pajamas when they get up in the morning to take a leak). So the Drew case is a fine opportunity for them: an unsympathetic defendant who perhaps offers the precedent that signing on to an online service as "Mr. Screwyou" of "123 Fake Street" in the town of "Fuckov, AK" is a despicable and infamous crime, and everybody will take note and stop doing it. But everybody else ought to die a little inside at the thought of it.

Unfortunately for everybody, it sounds like the Federal jury "split the baby," as lawyers sometimes say: it sounds like they figured out that Lori Drew violated common decency but a dead teenager was too much to let slide, and so they convicted Ms. Drew of a lesser-included. So the Feds don't get their awesometacular precedent and everybody else loses an inch of the figleaf of online privacy, and the dead girl is still dead, oh well. There is a common enough aphorism in the law: "Bad cases make bad law." One must regret that the Lori Drew Catastrophe doesn't disprove it.


Nathan Friday, November 28, 2008 at 9:26:00 AM EST  

Don't mistake this as sympathy for Ms. Drew, but she's as much a victim of the internet age as an abuser of it. 20 years ago, this would have been a local issue. It might have shown up in the back pages of newspapers and as a curiosity on network news, but it wouldn't have registered on my radar.

Today, this becomes personal to people internationally. We are all outraged. And since this lady is in whatever little burg, she's in and I'm miles and miles away, I have no personal recourse...Government had better do something.

On the flipside, if it remains a local issue, her neighbors can (and should) ostracize her, pointing fingers at her in the local Walmart saying, "There's that crazy bitch that tricked that little girl into killin' herself." That seems to me a more appropriate and effective punishment.

Random Michelle K Friday, November 28, 2008 at 8:07:00 PM EST  

The problem I think is that this reading about this selfish horrific moron makes a normal person want to go up to her and slap the shit out of her, tell her she's an horrible person, and post a sign in her yard telling everyone what a small minded idiot fuck she is.

Because we aren't close enough to do this ourselves, as Nathan said, we want someone to do it for us.

I mean, she caused the death of a 13 year old girl because she was selfish and small minded and a general bitch. It seems like there should be something that allows you to extract a fitting punishment.

Unfortunately, being a small minded, selfish, moronic fuckhead isn't illegal.

But by god you just wanna post this woman's picture everywhere with the caption "caused the death of an 13 year old girl," so everyone who ever looks at her will know what she did.

Eric Friday, November 28, 2008 at 10:27:00 PM EST  

I think Nathan's solution is exactly the punishment, Michelle (and I think, if I'm reading you correctly, you agree): Lori Drew deserves to be shunned, deserves to be excluded from decent society.

That's a fair punishment for what she did, and I believe it's one her community effected--I believe she's since moved because of the hostility of her neighbors at the time. With any luck, her infamy will follow her.

I think a major part of the problem isn't merely the globalization of news Nathan mentioned, however. I think somewhere down the line, a large body of people came to expect the criminal courts system have a remedy for everything. You see the same mentality that led to the Drew prosecution even in minor situations that will never make the news: in all the people who think that if a court orders drug treatment or anger management it will magically stick this time, in all the people who expect prosecutors to essentially procure civil damages for their real or imagined injuries, in all the situations where an aggrieved victim wants some insanely unconstitutional remedy (that person should be forced to wear a sign, or to go to church three times a week, or some such).

As you say, Michelle, being a fuckhead isn't illegal--and it shouldn't be. But I think we're on the same page here: being a fuckhead should lead to being treated like a fuckhead, and that's the punishment that everybody should have settled for.

Carol Elaine Saturday, November 29, 2008 at 2:02:00 PM EST  

I can't write what I'm really thinking because I don't have the time and this case actually hits me in a very emotional place, but in my book, causing someone to commit suicide by being cruel and taking advantage of known emotional issues is criminal and should be prosecuted as such.

I'll have to come back when I can present a thought out response. But having had a sister killed at the age of 10 due to the idiocy of another - albeit via drunk driving - it's difficult for me to be objective about this.

Manslaughter sounds right to me.

Eric Saturday, November 29, 2008 at 9:17:00 PM EST  

Carol Elaine, I'm not aware of any claims that Lori Drew took advantage of "known emotional issues." Nor is there any claim I'm aware of that causing the girl's suicide was intentional or even foreseeable. For that matter, I think you could even get into some debate over causality in this situation: while Drew's actions certainly set the stage for the child's emotional breakdown, she didn't send the final e-mail that provoked the reaction, and, furthermore, it's problematic to hold a third party responsible for somebody else volitional act anyway (i.e. even if I encourage you to do something, it's still your decision to act unless I engage in some form of coercion or somehow create a situation where you wouldn't act but for my encouragement, the latter being something that's extremely difficult to prove in any sort of situation).

Manslaughter just isn't defined to cover such situations, and if you stretch it to cover such situations, I don't think you'd be pleased with the results. After all, if you're going to consider any instance of negligent action or failure to act leading to death as being prosecutable, you've set the stage for prosecuting the parents of any child who commits suicide (for failing to see the warning signs, for failing to supervise, for allowing the implements of self-destruction to be available, etc.)--that seems a pretty awful road to start walking down, frankly. (And yes, there are prosecutors who have tried going down similar aisles in the law.)

What Drew did is reprehensible, and she should be treated as the horrible person she showed herself to be--but what she did isn't criminal. Moreover, what she was actually prosecuted for shouldn't be criminal: the local prosecutors agreed a crime hadn't been committed, so Federal prosecutors on the other side of the country decided to prosecute Drew not for any form of murder including manslaughter (they wouldn't have had jurisdiction even if they had the elements for a Federal crime), but for a fraud. Even if one were to agree Drew should be criminally punished, she wasn't technically prosecuted for causing a suicide, she was prosecuted for signing up to an internet social network using an alias.

All that aside, I'm sorry for your loss, Carol Elaine.

Carol Elaine Monday, December 1, 2008 at 4:49:00 PM EST  

Eric, I understand what you're saying. Some of the news reports that I read said that Lori Drew took advantage of "known emotional issues." I can't remember where I read that off the top of my head, but that is what I took away from those reports. I will allow that it is entirely possible what I read was incorrect.

I personally wouldn't try the adult on fraud charges, because I don't believe that registering on online services with a pseudonym or nickname is criminal. If someone violates a TOS, I believe that's a civil matter, not a criminal one, unless the pseudonym was used to defraud people of money.

As for anything deeper, I am honestly at a loss as to what to say. There's no just solution that I can see, because I don't think public ostracism is harsh enough. I don't.

Mind you, I don't believe in draconian sentences. I've been firmly against the death penalty for many years and believe that rehabilitation - when possible (and I think it's possible more often than people may realize) - is a far better route for those who land in prison than just keeping them locked up indefinitely (unless we're talking a Manson or Bundy - then life without parole is perfectly acceptable) . But I am also categorically against slaps on the hand (hearkening back to my sister's death - that was the "punishment" of the drunk woman who hit my sister when she was crossing the street).

I understand that manslaughter doesn't technically cover what happened. I understand that stretching the definition of manslaughter to cover this is problematic. Most of the time I'd be right there with you, Eric.

But this wasn't simply a cruel childish hoax. There was malice aforethought here. The participants of the hoax may not have foreseen the resultant suicide, but that doesn't make the girl any less dead or the perpetrators of the hoax (two of which were nominal adults) any less responsible for her death. That's something that cannot be forgiven and shouldn't be dismissed with a slap on the hand. So, yeah, I admit I'm not exactly objective when it comes to this sort of thing.

All that aside, thank you for your sympathy, Eric. It is very much appreciated.

Eric Monday, December 1, 2008 at 9:12:00 PM EST  

Carol Elaine, the problem is that it's simply not a crime to be mean to somebody on the internet, even if doing so leads to somebody harming him or herself.

And that's not what Lori Drew was convicted of--she was acquitted on those counts that involved causing harm to someone. What Drew was convicted of was violating MySpace's Terms Of Service; incidentally, it appears that Megan Meier's parents may have committed the exact same crime when they allowed their daughter to register on the site.

There is an excellent summary up at Groklaw that's worth reading; it happens that both liberal and conservative attorneys agree that Drew's prosecution and conviction set horrible a horrible precedent and expansion of the law.

Read the Groklaw piece--I think it's a good bit more thorough and convincing than I have time for. The Drew case ultimately isn't about some kind of "justice" for Megan Meier: it's about how people use the internet. And it's bad, it's really, really bad.

John the Scientist Monday, December 1, 2008 at 10:50:00 PM EST  

"I think somewhere down the line, a large body of people came to expect the criminal courts system have a remedy for everything."

Ain't that the truth? And when that happens, we see those mobile police observation boxes with the tinted windows that Nathan posted on his site a while back. 1984 will come by invitation, not by conquest.

For once, we are in total agreement on a legal question!

It reminds me of those teenagers who committed suicide and then the parents blamed D&D.

You remember what the D&D scene was like in the mid-to-late 70s. Every weirdo and freak that would have been gothed up and listening to cat-torturing Metal was in it. Those kids were messed up before D&D, and if it wasn't D&D, it wold have been some other obsession.

This girl was headed for problems, and how long wold it have been before she got jilted for real in her life? Would it have been the fault of the shallow fucker who boned her and left her if it had happened then?

John the Scientist Monday, December 1, 2008 at 10:52:00 PM EST  

"that would have been gothed up and listening to cat-torturing Metal"

... in the mid 80s to late 90s...


Eric Monday, December 1, 2008 at 11:00:00 PM EST  

What I mostly remember of D&D in the '70s was getting my first copy of the Basic Edition rulebook when I was in elementary school, but no offense taken--I know what you're getting at and I agree with your point.

Random Michelle K Tuesday, December 2, 2008 at 8:54:00 AM EST  

This girl was headed for problems, and how long wold it have been before she got jilted for real in her life? Would it have been the fault of the shallow fucker who boned her and left her if it had happened then?

John, your lack of sympathy for mental health issues is not making me happy.

And there is a difference between being dumped and being told the world would be a better place without you.

It's also likely that if it had been a real guy, 1) her family and friends would likely have known what was happening and 2) teenage guys are stupid. They aren't purposely cruel. There is a significant difference there.

Eric Tuesday, December 2, 2008 at 6:55:00 PM EST  

Michelle, while I agree teenage boys are dumb (as are teenage girls), your assessment that they aren't cruel is overly broad. Some are sadists. And I wouldn't be shocked if "the world would be better off without you" or some close equivalent had been used as a breakup line by a man, woman, boy or girl.

And I don't know why you assume that if Meier's "boyfriend" had been a real teenage boy on MySpace, the girl's parents and friends would have known what was happening--in fact, that's totally illogical. They clearly wouldn't have known what was happening, because they didn't know what was happening.

While John's phrasing was a bit harsh, he raises a good point: if Meier had been jilted by a real sadistic teenage asshole, should that asshole be prosecuted for being a dick? Supposing Meier's "beau" had been real and had broken up with her less harshly, and she'd still killed herself? Where is that line going to be drawn.

And unfortunately, this has to be said, too: that sympathy for the Meiers is part of the problem. What I mean is that the child's suicide is tragic, but the fact that we feel sympathy, empathy and pity for the Meier family and their late daughter shouldn't lead us to do something ridiculous like expanding the definition of manslaughter to include every act of douchebaggery or establish a legal precedent that anybody who violates the terms of service of a internet services provider is subject to Federal prosecution in any possible jurisdiction of a Federal prosecutor's choice. If the Drew prosecutions stand, almost anything you do on the internet might be a crime in almost any state at the discretion of almost any Federal prosecutor: that's not justice for Megan Meier, that's batshit raving insanity.

Random Michelle K Tuesday, December 2, 2008 at 9:21:00 PM EST  

Eric, John posited boinking. That means a flesh relationship (to say the least.

Yeah, a jerk boyfriend might dump her on myspace, but I think more people would be aware of the relationship and the downward spiral.

If the guy was that much of a jerk, chances are her friends or family would have noticed and been on the lookout. But these is an ethereal relationship that others may or may not have known about.

Has that line been used? I'm sure it has. But how often (outside of the movies) do you have guys who go out looking to break hearts in the cruelest way possible?

As far as a human jerk... Many females have fathers, brothers or male friends who would be more than willing to take an actual jerk out behind the woodshed and teach him some manners. Again, as you said, it's a local thing.

To be honest, I was just upset by John's comment she woulda done it sooner or later. I say no. Depressed or not, there is a difference between a genuine breakup and someone who has set you up for a falling telling you to go off yourself.

Eric Tuesday, December 2, 2008 at 11:13:00 PM EST  

Michelle, I think John's point--and maybe I misunderstood it--was that Meiers was apparently a pretty depressed kid, whether her parents knew it or not, and the Drew incident was merely a trigger; it could have been any number of other things that could have been a trigger (or not) instead, this just happened to be it.

And it's reasonable to infer from her decision to kill herself over a breakup that she was depressed, and if you saw today's headlines about the Columbia University/New York State Psychiatric Institute survey or if you've worked with kids, it's not a surprise that Drew's parents and friends may well have missed signs she was upset.

(On a personal note, I dealt with some pretty severe depression issues as a teen that I worked through in my early adulthood with my parents being none the wiser and in fact being shocked at how close to suicide I really was through most of my adolescence. I suspect the 20% statistic may be problematic and that the wrong conclusions may be drawn from it--but I'm completely unsurprised that a substantial number of teens are suffering from clinically diagnosable disorders or their equivalents right beneath their parents unaware noses, regardless of how attentive or loving or concerned those parents try to be.)

Let me take the other part of what John said for a moment, because I think, if I'm reading him correctly, that it gets to the center point he was getting back: he mentioned the "D&D kids," and conflated two stereotypes that doesn't really have any merit--the "gothed-up" weirdos and freaks listening to "cat-torturing Metal" (actually, that itself was two groups, at least in the '80s: the goths and metalheads didn't mix unless the metalheads actually got physical and beat the goth kids up) and the gamers (an outcast group that mostly consisted of nerds and miscellaneous outcasts--including, sometimes, the goths or metalheads who could cross caste barriers). That doesn't really describe very many gamers all that well, and the stereotypes don't have much basis in fact.

But there is this reason for it: there were a number of depressed kids in the 70s and 80s who happened to be goths or metalheads or gamers who committed suicide and whose situations got national attention because parents trying to explain their children's death in rational terms blamed their kids' unusual music or hobbies, which in turn led to court cases and media coverage (after all, "Teenager Kills Self" may not be an interesting headline, but "Child Commits Suicide Over Game" is something a reporter can milk).

The archetype of this is the late Patricia Pulling, who blamed Dungeons & Dragons for her son's suicide in 1982 and spent the remainder of her life pressing an ill-informed crusade against fantasy gaming. The fact that her son was described as someone who "had trouble 'fitting in' and became dejected when he was unable to find a campaign manager when he ran for school office... 'He had a lot of problems anyway that weren’t associated with the game...,'" didn't enter into it--blaming a weird game was something she could use to give her loss meaning; and of course the suggestion that some of her son's problems may have originated with her (Pulling's behavior, frankly, suggested somebody with issues) would have been far too close to the quick to contemplate.

The other archetype John alludes to (as far as gaming goes) is James Dallas Egbert III, the Michigan State student whose 1979 disappearance inspired the book and TV film Mazes And Monsters and persistent urban legends about D&D players killing themselves in sewers or steam pipes. The truth in the Egbert case, yet again, was that Egbert was another troubled teen (a child prodigy and closeted homosexual with very demanding parents), Egbert didn't kill himself in the Michigan State steam tunnels (he did, sadly, successfully end his life a year later, in 1980); in Egbert's case, the sensationalism was deliberate--the private investigator hired by Egbert's parents used the D&D angle to try to gather information and flush the teen out.

All of which is perhaps getting far afield from the point, which is that I think John was alluding to these things because the things blamed for the kids' deaths had nothing to do with the real cause of their suicides--untreated depression.

Do I know whether Meier would have killed herself but for Drew? Of course not. But that doesn't mean Drew's actions were a necessary cause of Meier's death. I do think that any number of other things might have triggered her actions; I also think that a significant number of teenagers dealing with a similar emotional would have dealt with it in a less-self-destructive manner.

Megan Meier very well might have done it sooner or later. Over a boy, or over something else, or (like Bink Pulling, for example) a series of somethings else.

Random Michelle K Wednesday, December 3, 2008 at 8:34:00 AM EST  

Yes, I'm not disagreeing about depressed kids or even the sterotypes (and I heartily agree with you: goths and metal heads did NOT group together or have anything to do with each other, unless, as you said, it was the metal heads coming to beat up the punks/goths (who banded together in all but self defense and in fact around here the teen hippies and punks were together)

I'd just like to mention one thing regarding your examples--they're all male.

Being female, and having been a depressed and suicidal teen, my friends knew what was going on in my life, and it was my friends who alerted one of the adults in my life as to the threat I posed to myself.

I knew which of my friends were having relationship trouble, and I knew which relationships were ending whether one party was oblivious or not.

Hell, I even had male friends talk to my about their troubles, but I know I was in a minority for that.

Which brings me back to my point that if this had been a real relationship, at the very least her friends would have seen trouble coming.

But this wasn't a real relationship. There were no warning signs for her to pick up on or for her friends to notice. It was a set-up.

Yes, it's possible--even likely-- that she would have dealt with depression and it's issues for years. And she may even have harmed herself.

But we'll never know because she was set-up.

She--as a thirteen year old--was set-up by adults. I am unsurprised that she would have reacted in such a manner after being manipulated.

I still agree that the actions of the "adult" do not fall into the legal action realm. But I disagree that it is likely she would have killed herself later over any little thing.

Eric Wednesday, December 3, 2008 at 9:20:00 AM EST  

I see where you're coming from, Michelle. I'm not sure, however, that you're right about what Meier's friends would have picked up on--consider this quote from the second page in the MSNBC article I linked to, from Sharon Fawcett (who is speaking of her daughter, who is now 16 and in treatment):

"The thing that confused me about my kids — and I’ve heard other parents say this — is how they can be so happy when they’re out with their friends, and as soon as they come home they’re depressed and angry and not speaking with us. I’ve learned since then that kids reserve their anger for the people they know they’re safe with."

In Fawcett's case, it took a sudden drop in her daughter's academic performance before she considered the possibility that her daugher was manifesting more than teen surliness at home.

(One notes, in the Meier case, that shortly before she killed herself, Meier essentially threw what her mother seemed to take as a tantrum when she was told to get off the computer; the mother went on to, IIRC, pick up another child from an activity--apparently having considered the child's behavior merely childish and not a harbinger of something else.)

I think the other issue I have is the question of "set-up for what?" While I agree that Lori Drew childishly participated in an effort to hurt Megan Meier, I don't think anybody has suggested she was trying to drive the child to her death; indeed, it didn't seem to occur to her, her daughter, or to the employee who actually sent the final painful messages. I'm not convinced that somebody should be criminally prosecuted for hurting somebody's feelings, even if the hurt feelings lead to tragedy. Of course, I think we agree about Drew's actions not falling into the legal realm, so I'm not trying to draw you into an argument over something you don't believe; I'm merely saying I don't believe that Drew was setting Meier up to harm herself, I think it was meant to be a childish prank and then everybody would just get over it and move on with their lives.

Obviously, that's not what happened.

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