For the uninitiated, the term “sock-puppet” is used in reference to the Internet to describe a situation where a person creates a fake online identity, usually for the purpose of deception. While it might seem obvious that, for instance, if a person makes up a false identity, and posts an ad offering to sell a baseball autographed by Babe Ruth for $10,000, but the poster has no such baseball, and the poster takes another person’s $10,000 and fails to deliver the goods, the poster can be charged with an internet crime. What about other contexts, such as harassment?
Take the case of Megan Meier. Ms. Meier was a teenager from Dardenne Prairie, Missouri who had a falling out with a friend. Thereafter, the friend and her mother allegedly set up a web page on the social networking site MySpace. The thing is, according to the allegations, they did not use their own names and identities. The page indicated that it belonged to a teenage boy by the name of Josh Evans. This identity was apparently not related to any real person with that name. It should be noted that Ms. Meier’s friend’s mother has denied setting up this MySpace page.
Allegedly, after establishing this fake identity online, “Josh Evans” began contacting Ms. Meier via Ms. Meier’s MySpace page. The initial contacts were friendly, with “Josh Evans” telling Ms. Meier that he thought she was attractive. Thereafter, the tone of the messages began to change. “Josh Evans” began sending Ms. Meier hurtful messages, and indicating that he was no longer interested in being Ms. Meier’s friend. There was an indication in news reports that the last message indicated that the “world would be a better place without” Ms. Meier. Investigators were not able to find any record of this message. Ms. Meier apparently discussed these hurtful messages with her mother, and this discussion ensued in an argument between Ms. Meier and her mother. Ms. Meier was found thereafter hanging by her neck in her bedroom closet. She subsequently died and her death has been ruled a suicide.
After reviewing the case, St. Charles County, Missouri prosecutors apparently declined to pursue any charges against the mother of Ms. Meier’s former acquaintance, however, this did not end the inquiry. A federal grand jury in Los Angeles has apparently subpoenaed records from MySpace (MySpace is headquartered in Los Angeles County, which is apparently why the grand jury was empanelled in Los Angeles instead of Missouri) and federal prosecutors are deciding whether to seek an indictment against Ms. Meier’s former friend’s mother for wire fraud against MySpace.
Additionally, the City of Dardenne Prairie has enacted a law in response to this incident. The law, a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment for up to 90 days and/or a $500.00 fine, prohibits harassment that utilizes any electronic meduim, such as the Internet. Given the noterieity this case has received, it would seem likely that other federal and state legislatures will follow suit.