Social Networking on the Internet and the Law

As part of the LIS colloquia, Dr. Cameron Hutchison from the faculty of Law presented today on some of the legal considerations of social networking.

It was a short talk on a subject I feel I’m not adequately informed about.  Perhaps the least surprising revelation was that legislation is severely lacking when it comes to electronic and/or digital media.  Dr. Hutchison focused primarily on how the legal system can best interpret existing legislation and adapt it to answer issues such as cyberbullying, copyright, and protection of information.

He began by giving examples of some of the legal gaps surrounding Internet usage.  The first of these was the question: “what happens to your online stuff after you die?”  Current legislation in this area is limited to PIPEDA, the Personal Information and Electronic Document Act, which requires the user’s consent before an online service provider (such as Facebook) will release personal information (Geist and Homsi, 2005).  PIPEDA does not provide any solution in the event of a user’s death (ibid.).  There are online services that can help manage your virtual life after your death– deathswitch, SlightlyMorbid, and MyLastQuest.com to name a few– but no laws exist to deal with this issue.

The second was the recent case of Megan Meier, who committed suicide after her neighbours Lori Drew and Ashley Grills created a fake identity on MySpace in order to bully her online.  Lori Drew, Ashley Grills mother, was tried in court and acquitted.  On July 2 the judge dismissed the case since the jury could only find her guilty of the misdemeanor charges for violating MySpace’s terms of service, even though her intent was clearly malicious in nature and had caused the situation that led to Meier’s death.  Although Drew’s actions were morally objectionable, they weren’t criminal; no law exists to convict her for “cyberbullying”.

One of the questions raised following the talk asked how the legal system determines jurisdiction for cyber-crimes.  Where does the crime occur when it’s happening in cyberspace?  Whose rules apply to the crime?  Quite often legislators assume that an IP address corresponds to an individual; but this is a false assumption, since a single person could use multiple IP addresses, or two or more people could share a single IP address (Lovet, 2009).  IP addresses are commonly masked, and technologies like wifi and P2P networking introduce challenges in associating an IP address to a particular region, let alone a person (ibid.).  In Canada, Hutchison explained, a “real and substantial connection” between criminal and crime must be determined in order to establish jurisdiction.  What happens if, unlike the case of Meier and Drew, the two parties are in different jurisdictions (say in Montreal and Manhattan)?  The notion of a global standard or treaty for the Internet came up, a set of international laws designed specifically to govern the Internet.  But this leads to other problems: what about Net Neutrality?

These were just a few of the issues that Dr. Hutchison raised with his lecture.  Overall, a very interesting talk– although I still feel like a a novice when it comes to Internet law.  Then again, I suppose that’s the point: we’re all novices.

Works cited

Geist, Michael, and Homsi, Milana (2005). “Outsourcing Our Privacy?: Privacy and Security in a Borderless Commercial World.”  URL (http://www.michaelgeist.ca/content/blogcategory/70/139/).  Last accessed December 10, 2009.

Lovet, Guillaume (2009).  “Fighting Cybercrimes: Technical, Juridical and Ethical Challenges.” Paper presented at Virus Bulletin Conference September 2009, at Crowne Plaza Geneva, Switzerland.  URL (http://www.fortiguard.com/resources/ResearchPapers.html). Last accessed December 10, 2009.

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