Friday, May 16, 2008

Net Loss

Two disturbing news stories about the Internet moved today. One is this account of the pending trial for the mom in Missouri who drove another mother's daughter to suicide by orchestrating a fake smear campaign against the fragile girl on MySpace.

Like a lot of people, probably, I would love to see this woman shunned by decent society for the rest of her life. I wouldn't mind if someone found a way to criminalize such things in the future.

But the tack being taken now by prosecutors is going to do a lot of hurt.

Prosecutors alleged that by helping create a MySpace account in the name of someone who didn't exist, Lori Drew, 49, violated the News Corp.-owned site's terms of service and thus illegally accessed protected computers.

In other words, they're calling her a hacker. And in the process, they're putting a lot of us in that category.

Legal experts warned Friday that such an interpretation could criminalize routine behavior on the Internet. After all, people regularly create accounts or post information under aliases for many legitimate reasons, including parody, spam avoidance and a desire to maintain their anonymity or privacy online or that of a child.

And the fact that your employer might forbid you to have an Internet presence under your real name, with a threat of firing attached.

This new interpretation also gives a business contract the force of a law: Violations of a Web site's user agreement could now lead to criminal sanction, not just civil lawsuits or ejection from a site.

Considering the woman in question has denied doing anything she is alleged to have done, it would seem there is latitude to charge her with other things, such as sworn falsification and lying to police investigating the death.

Among the acts this could define as "criminal" are signing up for Web services and boards without giving your correct age. I understand the interest of hosting services in showing they have taken care to keep people under 18 away from certain sites or images or conversations. But I also know young women who routinely put down their age as "99" to keep trolling creeps from catching them in member searches defined by gender and age. The women aren't the ones who belong in jail.

The other disturbing story is this one. Charter Communications plans to track some customers' Web use in collaboration with an online advertising firm, the better to target them with ads.

The ads "will better reflect the interests you express through your Web-surfing activity," Charter senior vice president Joe Stackhouse told the affected subscribers in a letter. "You will not see more ads — just ads that are more relevant to you."

Yeah, and that means if a couple chooses to visit adult sites on their own time at night, ads for similar sites will be popping up on the machine when they're using it along with their young children during the day. More relevant, indeed.