Lost in MySpace

The jury in the Megan Meier cyber-bullying case has found Lori Drew guilty of gaining unauthorised access to MySpace accounts, but cleared her on the more serious charge that she did so with the intention of causing emotional distress to Meier.

The verdict leaves open the question of who or what was primarily to blame for the tragic outcome of the affair. The jury obviously felt that Drew was culpable to some extent, but perhaps didn’t think that she could have foreseen the consequences of her actions.

This raises the possibility that the operators of social networking sites like MySpace or Facebook carry some responsibility for the actions of their users. On one level this seems ridiculous, like blaming the postal service for abusive letters. On the other hand it is well recognised now that there are aspects of computer-mediated communication that are potentially toxic, and it can be argued that the networking sites should be aware of this, and take steps to protect their subscribers from malicious users, and also from their own bad impulses.

My view is that, on the internet as in the rest of life, it is impossible to guarantee a risk-free environment, and probably harmful to try to do so. There should be some technical safeguards, like reliable age-verification, but the most effective protection will come from equipping people to look after themselves when they are surfing the net. Maybe a tutorial on what constitutes functional (and dysfunctional) online behaviour, and the potential for emotional damage, should be compulsory for everyone who signs up for a social networking site.

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