Like America’s Wild West after the gold rush, the largely ungoverned and often murky world of social media has become too lush to ignore, putting it on an inexorable collision course with federal lawmakers.
Giving new thrust to the calls for regulation is a court case making headlines in New Jersey, where a woman has been charged with fourth-degree identity theft after allegedly creating a Facebook account in the name of her ex-boyfriend, a police officer, then posting ugly and untrue statements in his voice. She faces up to 18 months in jail if convicted.
Attorneys for Dana Thornton, 41, had moved to dismiss the charges, saying in a letter delivered to a Morris County judge this morning that there is no precedent for prosecuting a case in which the alleged crime occurred solely by “use of electronic communications or an internet website.” Their motion was dismissed and the case is now likely headed to trial.
“Normally,” said Aaron Warshaw, a N.Y.-based attorney with Seyfarth Shaw LLP, who is not involved in the case, “this would be a simple defamation suit. A civil suit.”
But the evolving nature of web morality has complicated the legal code, much of which was written before the internet played such a heavy role in every-day life.
“Existing law can address these cases as they come,” said Stephen Schultze, the associate director of the Center for Information and Technology at Princeton University, “but it does not always anticipate these types of charges.”
When it comes to new and rapidly changing social forums, “the law can be difficult to translate.”
New Jersey, unlike California and New York, has not specifically incorporated social networks into its laws prohibiting identity theft. Lawyers for Thornton rejected prosecutors’ claims that their client’s action, in registering and updating the Facebook page, violated a criminal statute against inflicting “injury or harm” to another person.
Thornton is accused of using the world’s most used social networking site to say, in the detective’s voice, that he had herpes, liked to get high while working as a narcotics officer, spent his spare cash on prostitutes, and perhaps most succinctly, that he is “a sick piece of scum with a gun.”
The decision to prosecute Thornton on criminal charges fits in with a growing movement to protect private individuals from being harassed and defamed online. In the past, cases like the one in New Jersey mostly revolved around stolen personal information — credit card numbers, Social Security identification and the like – which was then used to purchase things on the web or over the phone.
But with the high profile cases of internet bullying turning deadly at Rutgers University, also in New Jersey, and in Missouri, lawmakers, judges, and even pop stars like Lady Gaga (who today unveiled a new foundation meant to combat “bullying and abandonment”) are casting a stricter eye on alleged anti-social behavior on the web.
“The legitimate interest of the government is that people shouldn’t be going online, faking their voice and hurting other people,” Warshaw said. “But in practice, you have to protect against overzealous prosecutors. And that balance needs to be written into the statute.”
For now, though, with no specific language making clear where “identity theft” begins and free speech protections end, this Morris County case is likely to catch a lot of attention from across the country.
As Warshaw sees it, “If you wanted to create a test, this is probably as good a case as you’re ever going to get.”