Computer Abuse Act Invoked Against Cyber Bullying
The Megan Meier suicide case in Missouri (US) where
the 13 year old girl committed suicide after being befriended and
rejected online by a 49 year old lady posing herself as a 16 year old boy
has attracted attention worldwide both for its tragic implications as
well as the legal aspects involved in the trial which is now on.
In this case, the accused Lori Drew has been held guilty by the Jury in a
District Court but the arguments are now in process for determining the
The accused Lori Drew, 49, has now appeared before the court on four
counts - one of conspiracy and three of gaining access to protected
computers without authorisation to acquire information used to inflict
emotional distress. The charges carry
a possible 20 years prison term.
Drew is alleged to have created a fake identity on MySpace called
Josh Evans through whom she then approached and cyber-befriended her
next-door neighbour Megan Meier. Evans, supposedly 16, exchanged
flirtatious emails with Meier over five weeks and then on October 17 2006
told her he was moving away from the suburb of St Louis in which she
She has reportedly replied: "I love you so much."
According to the prosecution, a week later the exchanges grew darker in
tone, with Evans sending emails the prosecution claims were emotionally
cruel. One supposedly read: "I don't know if I want to be friends with
you any more because I've heard you are not very nice to your friends,"
and a final one said: "The world would be a better place without you."
Within an hour of receiving that message, the indictment against Drew
alleges, Meier went up to her bedroom and hanged herself from the closet.
Now it is reported that Federal Prosecutors in California, 1,600
miles away from Meier's home, have invoked the Computer Fraud and
Abuse Act of 1984, which is usually applied against hackers to punish
The prosecution has argued that the servers used by MySpace, which are
maintained in Los Angeles, (hence the location of the trial) were
violated by Drew and her unnamed co-conspirators who used false
information to set up the account and therefore broke the website's terms
of service. MySpace is not a party to the prosecution, but has not
reportedly protested against the action.
Naavi.org appreciates the initiative taken by the
prosecutors in this regard though many legal experts may not be in
agreement with the approach of applying the Computer Abuse Act to the
case of Cyber Bullying.
In the Indian Context, Naavi.org has been consistently suggesting that ITA 2000 is
flexible enough to be applied in most offences some of which may be
offences under ITA 2000 itself where as some are offences under IPC,
while shortsighted legal experts have been arguing in
India that Information Technology Act 2000 (ITA 2000) does not cover many
We feel that it is the obligation of the law
enforcement to apply the available laws by interpreting it appropriately.
We also feel that in an emerging legal area where Jurisprudence is still
under development, it is necessary to understand the intentions behind a
law and apply it to the domain with some form of "Creative
One such offence which is is "Cyber
Stalking" or "Cyber Bullying". When a person is harassed through the
electronic media such as e-mail or SMS or through creation of profiles in
social networking sites, the offence is one of "harassment". Some times
it is "Sexual harassment" and some times it may be "threatening". These
are offences under IPC and not directly under ITA 2000.
"Creative Interpretation" of this emerging law of
Cyber space however suggests ways and means of fitting some of these
expenses under ITA 2000.
For example, according to ITA 2000, "Electronic
documents" are equal to "Paper documents". Though this statement is more
apt for commercial transactions, they need to be also applied for
criminal aspects. If a person can commit an offence such as "Threatening"
or "Defaming" etc using a written communication such as a publicly
distributed pamphlet or a letter, it can also be done through e-mail or a
website or an SMS.
The "equality principle " which states "Electronic
documents are equal to Paper documents in the eyes of law" should make it
possible for invoking any IPC offence when it is committed with the use
of electronic documents.
Similarly when a user of MySpace has been granted
certain rights to use the facilities and uses it for other purposes (It
may be for cyber bullying, creating false profiles etc), it is an "Unauthorised
use" or "Unauthorised access to the facilities". This is "hacking" under
section 66 of ITA 2000 and also liable for compensation under Section 43
of ITA 2000. This is the same interpretation which has now been followed
by the prosecutors in California in the Megan Meier case.
Additionally, there is also a possibility in Indian
law to interpret the provision
of section 66 of ITA 2000 regarding "Diminishing the
value of Information residing inside a computer resource" in many
cases of abuse of social networking sites.
The Megan Meier trial in California is therefore a
path breaking development in the development of Cyber Jurisprudence
irrespective of which way the decision finally goes.
June 17, 2008
Story in guardian.co.uk: