Here’s your assignment: you’re a state governor who’s up for re-election, and your state is still reeling in the wake of a high-publicity suicide by a teenage girl brought upon by inflammatory statements communicated through a popular social networking website.
What do you do? Panic and quickly push through a reactive new law, (maybe even sock it to the social networking industry), or do you study the issue to come up with a sound approach? If you’re the Governor of Missouri, you create a multi-disciplinary task force to review current law and enforcement related to Internet harassment and recommend changes to better protect the citizens of your state.
Yesterday I was in Jefferson City to participate in this task force, which included representatives from the law enforcement, nonprofit, academic, mental health, and business communities. The task force met to specifically create the new crime of cyber-harassment in response to Megan Meier’s suicide almost a year ago, but still newsworthy and on the minds of many people as this New York Times article from last week shows.
Cyber-harassment can be devastating and dangerous to victims. Due to the ease of sending electronic communications, harassment that occurs online can be instant, frequent, anonymous, and permanently public. Cyber-harassers can easily impersonate their victims and even encourage third parties to unwittingly "flame" and harass a victim.
Tina Meier, Megan’s mom, opened up our task force meeting by recounting the tragic story of her daughter’s death. Megan was a 13 year old girl that had befriended what she thought was a boy on MySpace but turned out to be an adult neighbor that lived next-door. "Josh Evans" was a fiction allegedly created to see what Megan was saying about the neighbor’s own daughter, and over a period of a month earned Megan’s trust and endearment. But one day this adult sent Megan’s world crashing when the fictitious boy turned against Megan, who for a period of hours sent a barrage of mean and harassing communications. Severely distraught and at the bottom of her emotional roller coaster, Megan took her own life.
Missouri and federal prosecutors could not pursue a case based on existing stalking, harassment and child endangerment. But it should be a crime for somebody to use Internet (or any other form of communications technology) to intentionally engage in conduct that would cause a reasonable person (especially children) severe emotional distress, not just fear for her physical safety.
As policymakers look to create cyber-harassment laws, they should engage in the kind of analysis that applies to any new law: consider whether the law will be effective, the costs to enforce the new law, and any potentially unintended consequences. Harassment can be perpetrated in number of technological ways, whether it is by phone, fax, email, blog postings, or old fashioned pen and paper. This begs the question of why we should refer to harassment using the Internet as an "Internet" or "Cyber" crime. Internet communications may have created new avenues to harass, but it’s still harassment no matter how one does it. That’s why any new laws (if they are deemed necessary to fill gaps in current law) should, as much as possible, be technology neutral and focus on bad acts, not technology.
Foremost, I discussed the ways that industry is working to keep users safe and help law enforcement to catch the bad guys. All of the major ISPs provide parental control software, often for free (see Adam Thierer’s survey of online tools). MySpace is leading the industry with innovations to keep bad actors off and to monitor for bad conduct on its site. And companies like AOL, Microsoft, MySpace and Yahoo! regularly interact with law enforcement to help provide technical training and provide information in response to subpoenas.
Cyber-harassment is the narrow focus of the task force, but the scope of this issue is broad. Is harassment limited to adults harassing children or other adults, or does it include child vs. child too? Or is a child harassing another child what we’d call "cyber-bullying", which is undesirable but may not be criminal behavior? How do we incorporate a reasonable person standard when, as was the case with Megan, a victim is particularly susceptible to the effects of harassing conduct, due to diminished capacity or depression? To what extent should schools be involved in responding to cyber-bullying?
The task force will be dealing with these and other tough issues as it drafts cyber-harassment legislation. If Missouri can get it right, than the "show me" state can be an example for other states on how to create and draft well-targeted and effective legislation, even on the heels of tragedy.