Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Criminalizing the Act of Creating a Fake Persona Online...

The days of creating a fake username so that you can surf the Web anonymously may be over.

Yesterday saw the conclusion of one of the most prominent legal cases ever dealing with privacy and identity issues on the internet - the Lori Drew case. Basically, Lori Drew was an overprotective mom who established a fake online identity to bully her daughter's rival. She created a MySpace account under the name "Josh Evans" and bullied the 13-year-old Megan Meier so relentlessly that it directly led to her to suicide.

The judge's ruling not only found Lori Drew guilty of cyberbullying, but, and perhaps more importantly, has also now criminalized the act of creating a fake persona online. As RWW says, "the aftershocks of the ruling could very well impact the online identity creation process for years to come if it's not overturned."

A great debate is ensuing today over this case, and it has very little to do with Lori Drew, whose actions are almost universally condemned. The debate is whether this case signals the end of online anonymity.

Broadstuff notes the underlying problems: "I wonder what a fake persona counts as - is a nom de plume ok if its clear who you are on investigation? And how is this going to be enforced across chatrooms and social nets everywhere? I suspect a rash of "real sounding" names will emerge..."

But such sentiments rest on the assumption that we've already had a high degree of anonymity and privacy in the past. And depending on how conspiracy-minded you happen to be, that's certainly a highly questionable assumption, to say the least. Allen Stern wrote a piece just last week titled, "Google Knows Where I Am and Everything Else I Do," in which he details all of the information that is being tracked about your online life. And who can forget when Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems (who has actual firsthand knowledge of the subject), famously proclaimed, "You already have no privacy. Get over it".

To add my two cents, I think that most of the bloggers who today are fearmongering with apocalyptic calls of "the end of online anonymity" are being far too alarmist. Internet surfers who really wanted to hide their identity use tactics far beyond simply creating a false MySpace name, and the decentralized architecture of the Web still affords them those options. Meanwhile, for the mainstream user, whatever expectation of anonymity we might have had went out the window long ago anyway. So let's applaud the judge's efforts to reign in the act of cyberbullying, while remaining cautiously hopeful that future courts will not take an overly broad interpretation of this decision.


At 3:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

good blog

At 11:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm curious to see the long term ramifications of this case. It is a landmark case. If its effect is narrow, then I hope it will give ammo to prosecutors to go after the real fringe cases that come up--like the Lori Drew case. Using the internet--however unconceivable it may seem--to destroy another human being and cause them to kill themselves should be prosecuted and it is wrong. With that said, I hope it doesn't take a broad impact and people are safe from prosecution for merely communicating anything online.


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