Let's Build a Responsible Cyber Society



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 punishments. 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 lived.

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 Lori Drew.

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 offences.

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 Interpretation".

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

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