A Missouri woman was convicted of three federal misdemeanor crimes for pretending to be a teenage boy, courting a 13 year old classmate of her daughter’s and then sending abusive messages over Myspace to the young girl. Apparently, one of the messages sent by the defendant told the young girl that the world would be better a better place without her. The girl, who was suffering from depression, committed suicide.
As a result, federal prosecutors in Los Angeles, where the Myspace servers are located, charged the Missouri woman with three misdemeanor counts for violating the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Some were critical of these charges because the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act was originally conceived to deal with computer hackers, not people who send inappropriate and abusive messages over social networking sites like Myspace. This prosecution represented an extension of that law to include inaccurate information sent over social networking websites, which have become very popular with young people and are increasingly popular among older people and professionals. While this case was obviously an extreme example of Internet abuse with tragic results, it does raise the concern that prosecutors can use federal laws designed for another purpose to charge people with crimes for being abusive and sending out false information over the Internet. There is no specific federal criminal law that specifically addresses that type of behavior over social or professional networking sites
At the trial, prosecutors were able to use the fact that the Missouri woman violated the Myspace terms of service which require Myspace users to transmit accurate and truthful information. In addition to the fact that few people read the lengthy terms of service information before signing up for such a website, this also raises the concern that a private company is setting standards that can be used to substantiate a criminal prosecution. If the rules and regulation set forth by a website like Myspace can form the basis for a criminal prosecution, people should be notified as such before registering for the site. Additionally, if websites like Myspace have some influence over the standard to be used to define criminal behavior on their website, should such websites then have some obligation to prevent its users from committing those crimes on their websites. In other words, if a Myspace user is being verbally abusive towards another user, does Myspace have an obligation to monitor that activity and delete the abusive comments and cancel the accounts where the Myspace terms of service are being violated in such a way that criminal laws are possibly being violated?