This rant is not about what you think it's about. Based on the title, one would think that it's about another one of George Bush's liberty-destroying executive orders, torture at Guantanamo, or the arrest of another journalist. It's not.
It's about a topic that, on the surface, seems to be completely nonthreatening to our American liberty, but which presents a very real danger. It's about Lori Drew and Megan Meier.
You're probably already familiar with the story, and you've probably already heard that Drew was convicted of three counts of "accessing computers without authorization," but if you don't know what I'm talking about, read this news story.
Up to speed yet? Good.
This shit is very fucking dangerous, and I am both pissed off and scared. Let me explain why.
One of the fundamental tenets of our system of government is that we know what the laws are. The government issues clear rules, in the form of law, that we must follow, and we can be arrested if we do not abide by them. Another fundamental principle in America, so fundamental, in fact, that we never even think about it, is that only the government can write laws. Random people can tell us what to do all they want, but they can't have us arrested if we don't comply. These two principles help to ensure our liberty by making sure that only the government, which is accountable to the people, can make laws, and that the people can change the law by voting in people that will make the desired changes.
The Lori Drew case turns all this on its head.
Drew was charged with, and convicted of, "accessing computers without authorization." This charge is generally used against hackers who force their way into protected computer systems. In general, it's a good law to have. People's (and companies') computers are private, and often contain very sensitive information. We need a law to deal with hackers who steal financial information, destroy important data, or wreak havoc in other ways, and the law prohibiting "accessing computers without authorization" is a good tool for that purpose.
But Lori Drew is not a hacker.
The allegation made by the government (and accepted by the jury) is that Drew violated the terms of service of MySpace. That's it. That's all she was accused of doing. She was not accused of harassing Meier. She was not accused of causing the suicide. She was simply accused (and convicted) of violating the terms of service of MySpace. You see, MySpace, and many other publicly accessible websites, has a terms of service document. These are the terms that News Corporation (the owner of MySpace) wants all users of the site to abide by. The terms of service stipulate acceptable behavior on the site, what you can and cannot do or say, etc. They also stipulate that you are not authorized to access the service if you do not abide by the terms.
One of the stipulations in MySpace's terms of service is that all users must use their real name/identity. Fake names are prohibited. The government alleged that Drew violated MySpace's terms of service by creating and using an account under the name of a fictitious teenager, and that since she violated MySpace's terms of service, she was not authorized to access the website. Therefore, since she pointed her web browser to the website even after violating the terms of service, she "accessed computers without authorization," a federal crime punishable by years in prison.
Think about that for a minute. Let it fucking soak into your thick skull. Drew was convicted of a federal crime, and could spend years in federal prison, for using a fake name on a website! She was convicted of a federal crime, and could spend years in federal prison, for failing to abide by an obscure clause in a 4,336-word document, written in legalese by a private corporation.
Do you understand how fucking dangerous this is?
This conviction, if allowed to stand, means that we now have a federal law requiring every user of the internet to strictly abide by every clause in the terms of service documents of every website, service, or internet service provider that they use, under pain of arrest and years-long incarceration. This conviction grants the full force of federal law to the terms of service documents of every publicly accessible website in the world, or at least every publicly accessible website hosted in the United States. It allows millions of private corporations and individuals to write federal law, that can be enforced by the authorities (as demonstrated by the Drew case), with almost no accountability and no transparency.
Private corporations and individuals can now make the law. A website operator can put whatever the fuck he wants into his terms of service, and he can bury it in tens of thousands of words of legalese, and we are required to abide by it, even if we've never read the document, or we can be arrested.
Can you imagine how difficult, nearly impossible, it is to strictly abide by every word of the terms of service document of every website you frequent and every internet service you use, not to mention your internet service provider?
Take the time, right now, to go to the website of one of your favorite internet services and read, carefully, word by word, their terms of service document. You've probably never read one of those things in your life, but read one of them now.
Now you understand how impossible it is to avoid violating terms of service. Just about every user of the internet in the United States violates the terms of service document of his ISP, or of an internet service he uses, or of a website he visits, or of a computer program he downloaded that accesses the internet, on a frequent basis, accidentally, without even knowing it. You are now guilty of a federal crime. So am I, and so is everyone else you know that uses the internet.
So what does this mean? It means that any one of us can be arrested and incarcerated, at any time and practically for any reason. It means the federal government now has justification to lock up any individual in the United States who uses the internet, for years. If the government wants to lock you up, all it has to do is find out what websites you visit, research the terms of service documents of one or more of them, and find a clause or three that it can show that you violated. Bam. You're in prison.
Maybe you think I'm being paranoid. "Well, I don't have anything to worry about," you might say, if you were an idiot. "The government would only use this against people who should be locked up anyway." If you believe that, open your eyes. Surely you've noticed the corrosion of civil liberties that has taken place all around us for the past several years now. Surely you've noticed the extra-legal incarceration of individuals that the president determines to be "enemy combatants," in a location outside the United States, in a legal black hole where torture can take place. Surely you've noticed the "extraordinary renditions" of people suspected of certain crimes to foreign countries where they can be tortured with impunity. Surely you've noticed the increased harassment, criminal charges, and even military action (only in other countries, for now) against journalists by the United States, purely for their speech. Surely you've noticed the slow but steady slide towards the criminalization of dissent in the United States over the past years.
The government is not a benevolent, protective grandfather. The government is a Big Brother wannabe, and he now has an incredibly useful tool at his disposal. It would be ridiculously easy for the government, with the precedent of the Drew case in place, to use this law to arrest people who say subversive things on the internet. All they'd have to do is claim that the speech violated the website's (or their ISP's) terms of service. Later on, once this has become accepted, they could arrest dissenters on the accusation that some other, completely unrelated, internet conduct violated a terms of service document.
If Lori Drew's conviction is allowed to stand, it will become the perfect legal justification for the arrest of just about anyone, and with the internet becoming more and more ubiquitous, nearly everyone in the United States will be subject to possible arrest and incarceration.
That is how fucking dangerous this conviction could be, for all of us.
But do you know the saddest part? People just don't see it.
People don't even think about it. Ever since this story came out, people all over the internet have been clamoring loudly and insistently for Lori Drew to be punished for the death of Megan Meier. They celebrated when she was arrested and put on trial in a California court (because MySpace's web servers are physically based in California). All anyone cares about is vengeance. We are a society obsessed with revenge. We don't care about justice. We don't care about fairness. We don't care about rationality. We care about vengeance. Any price, any price, is worth seeing the scum of the earth, in this case Lori Drew, locked away.
We don't even care about the victims of crime. Not really. We don't care about the victims; we only care about seeing the lowlife criminals punished. It makes us feel good, and that's it. Because, after all, only they are criminals. They are categorically separate from us. We are good people, while they are lowlife scum who deserve everything they get. And the circle encompassing "them" is slowly growing to include more and more classes of people. We get to feel a sense of smug superiority over this distinct group of people, these criminals, without ever thinking that, just maybe, on the whole, we're not much better than they are. That, under similar circumstances, we would do similar things. This desire for vengeance gives us a group of people to hate, and we need someone to hate. Otherwise we may start to hate ourselves because we'll be forced to recognize how fucked up we are.
But the factor that makes this even worse in the Drew case is ageism. Megan Meier was 13 years old. Due to the persistent, irresistible slide towards ever increasing infantilization of young people in our society, we now look on people like Meier as "little girls." She is even called such in the article linked to above. A "little girl." A perfectly innocent little girl, a child, who can do no wrong (unless she tries to be more adult than we allow her to be, in which case she might be the one locked up), and must be protected at all costs. We, especially those of us who are relatively young, have been conditioned for our entire lives to accept anything, no matter how absurd, draconian or unjust, that we are told protects children, and the definition of "children" is steadily expanding. So when a "little girl" like Meier gets hurt, even by her own hand, we scream and howl for vengeance.
And we get it at our own peril.
Wouldn't it be ironic if it were not terrorism that destroys our democracy and our liberty, not the legal black hole of Guantanamo, or of extraordinary rendition, but the pernicious ageism and bigotry that causes us, as a society, to look on all young people as helpless little children to be protected?
Adolf Hitler once said, "The State must declare the child to be the most precious treasure of the people. As long as the government is perceived as working for the benefit of the children, the people will happily endure almost any curtailment of liberty and almost any deprivation."
He was right.