Privacy in Social Network Sites

Privacy and Identity-relevant Information in Social Network Sites

Megan Meier Case: My Analysis

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Many scholars, media and bloggers have written about the case of Megan Meier.

As a preview of my graduate thesis, below you will find the analysis that I provide of the case in my report.

An example that shocked the United States of America and could be having severe implications for privacy in Social Network Sites, is the Megan Meier case. Megan Meier, a 13-year-old girl from St. Louis, Missouri, committed suicide just after a 16-year-old handsome MySpace friend told her “the world is a better place without you in it”. However, the 16-year-old boy was in fact a group of people who lived next door, and had created a fake profile. Lori Drew, the mother of a classmate of Megan, participated in this hoax. She got indicted for a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) on charge of conspiracy and three counts of computer breach, namely creating fictitious profiles, sending abusive messages and soliciting personal information from minors. Experts on Internet and privacy, that I have surveyed for my graduation thesis, agree that the damage from stalkers / predators and bullies on SNS could be very large for users.
Daniel Solove has a great collection of web logs about this case (2007d, 2007e, 2007f, 2007g, 2008c, 2008d), that specifically question the decision of the prosecutors to charge Lori Drew with computer breach and violating MySpace’s terms of use. If violating terms of use of a Social Network Site is considered a crime, many  people are criminals. Solove agrees with Orin Kerr that the CFAA is stretched too far by applying it to not abiding terms of service’s of a Social Network Site. Specifically, he mentions that Drew’s acts might be immoral, but not illegal.

If I analyze this case with the help of the framework that I have developed in my thesis, the exact cause of the harm and the omissions in the law become much clearer. It must be said that this analysis is not a legal analysis, but uses an ethical framework to identify the specific activities and harms. It is initially a descriptive framework, but it has normative implications when I identify the specific harms. In this case, three specific activities lead to harm, see table 1.

  1. The disclosure of Megan’s profile ID made it possible to contact her. Without this information, it would have been impossible for the group around Lori Drew to contact Megan Meier and harass her. However, the difficulty in describing this as information-based harm, is that although this information was in this case used to harm the girl, it could also have been used in a benign way. Van den Hoven (2007) is quite clear about this: if identity-relevant information is insufficiently protected, it could  harm people. According to him, “[I]n information societies, identity relevant information resembles guns and ammunition.” I argue that because the contact via Megan’s profile took place on a very intimate and emotional level, this contact could have led to severe harms.
  2. The information of Megan’s profile traversed from a youth sphere to an adult sphere, which contained Lori Drew. The involvement of Drew in the harassment is what most people find appalling. Megan’s contact information was now used not by a youngster from her age to contact her for benign purposes. This adult with malign pruposes could, considering her age, have harmed Megan more easily. But Solove asks in one of his posts: would people feel different about posting the personal information about the creators of the profile, if  these were also teenagers? I argue they would, because the transfer of information to the adult sphere and the involvement of a more mature person in harassing, especially appeals to our feelings of morality.
  3. Finally, the woman and girl posted harmful remarks towards Megan on her MySpace profile. The information was uploaded by the group and collected by MySpace. This information, and especially the final remark, was posted with the intent to harm Megan. Solove states that it is hard to proof that these remarks lead directly to the suicide. However, it is very clear that the remarks were made to harm Megan and  therefore subject to information-based harm.

Table describing Megan Meier case

Table 1: Framework applied to Megan Meier case

With this analysis, I have showed that the specific harms in the Megan Meier case derive from the possibilities created by the easy availability of identity-relevant information and by the transgression of this information through different spheres.

In my thesis report, I will analyze 11 of such cases, which correspond with the privacy harms that the experts I have surveyed, identified.

References

Solove, D.J., 2006. A Taxonomy of Privacy. University of Pennsylvania Law Review, 154(3), 477-560.

Van den Hoven, J., 2007. Information Technology, Privacy and The Protection of Personal Data. In J. Van den Hoven, ed. Information Technology, Privacy and The Protection of Personal Data. Cambridge, UK ; New York : Cambridge: University Press, pp. 462-494. Available at: http://lccn.loc.gov/2007016850.

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Written by davidrip

September 3, 2008 at 5:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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