Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Legal Issues of a Cyberprank

Warning: This topic contains material and links to material that may offend some readers. Reader discretion is advised.

Just as the invention of the telephone spawned prank calls, the Internet spawned cyberpranks. Some of them are harmless, like the one going around a few years ago about the "built-in camera" in the computer. Others are illegal, like posing as someone else (usually a celebrity) for personal financial gain.

While some cyberpranks are obviously libelous (ex: if I open a MySpace account posing as some celebrity, and I post images of that celebrity without his/her consent, and I post information that isn't true about that celebrity, I can face civil action) or illegal (ex: the 419 Nigerian scam), there is a recently reported cyberprank that's causing ambiguity of what's illegal or libelous.

A web developer decided to play a prank. He wanted to know how many responses he could receive in 24-hours to a classified ad for sex. He posed as a "submissive woman looking for an agressive dom" and posted a sexually explicit photo on classified-ad site craigslist. Then, he publicly posted all of the unexpurgated responses, including all the personal information and the photos, on Encyclopedia Dramatica.

(For more information on the prank, here's the full story: Craigslist prank. Let me know if the link is broken by the time you read this.)

This prank opens up a number of legal issues:

  • Is your privacy being violated if you voluntarily give personal information and the person uses it for his/her purposes?

  • Are you open to civil or criminal litigation by misrepresenting yourself?

  • Are you open to civil action for posting personal information about someone else which could cause damage to the person's livelihood?

  • Is craigslist liable for the fallout from this prank?

Here is my take:

Is your privacy being violated if you voluntarily give personal information and the person uses it for his/her purposes?
A general answer regarding a "violation of privacy" - if you did not willingly reveal personal information to the person who received it (ex: someone ran a stealth program on a site to collect information), the answer is yes. However, if you willingly reveal your private information, the answer is no, your privacy is not being violated. If I want something to remain private, I don't reveal the information.

However, what if the person who is collecting the information is misrepresenting the reason why he's collecting the information? Usually, many sites who are collecting your information explicitly tell you (in their privacy policies) what they are going to do with your information, and they explicity warn you about revealing your public information on their public forums. I think that it still stands that if you willingly reveal the information, your privacy is not being violated.

Are you open to civil or criminal litigation by misrepresenting yourself?
This really is a tough question. In some cases, it's obvious. If I pretend to be a disaster victim to collect donations, I am going to face criminal charges if I get caught. In some cases, misrepresentation is legal. For example, the TV show
Dateline (on US TV network NBC) does a show with the cooperation with legal authorities where the investigative reporters pose as 12 and 13 year old children on the Internet to catch sexual predators.

However, what about this cyberprank case? From a criminal standpoint, there doesn't appear to be any laws being broken. From a civil standpoint, it's pretty ambiguous (see the next question).

Are you open to civil action for posting personal information about someone else which could cause damage to the person's life?
Another tough question that I have a very hard time answering. This prank can cause some serious damage to a person's life. It could wreck marriages, and it could wreck careers. Plus, since the personal information (e-mails, phone numbers, IM accounts) was also published, it opens that person up to harassment.

I wouldn't be surprised if someone sues the prankster because of damage caused by the prank, but could the complainant win? I don't know. On one side, the prankster misrepresented himself, and the mark thought that he was dealing with a potential partner. The prankster used the information for his own gain (his amusement). On the other side, the action could have been used as grounds for divorce, or the person was involved in an occupation where the person must observe "morals clauses" (ex: clergy).

What about physical harm that happens to the person because of this action? For example, the person may attempt suicide over the reprocussions of the prank, or some zealot decides to physically attack the person over his indecent behavior. Is the prankster open to civil action then?

Is craigslist liable for the fallout from this prank?
I took a look at craigslist's terms of use, and they do warn the user about answering the classified ads with caution. They also state that you may encounter ads that are "misleading" because "you acknowledge that craigslist does not pre-screen or approve Content".

Is craigslist liable for the fallout of this prank? NO! Is craigslist irresponsible for not monitoring the ads more closely? YES!

I think that the fallout from this prank may cause the webmasters of craigslist to reconsider their policy of not pre-screening the ads before they are published.

I would love to hear your responses and opinions of this issue, especially from those of you with a legal background.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Cybertainment: A Sign of the Times

YouTube's popularity has exploded over the past year, coining the phrase cybertainment. Good Morning America frequently features a YouTube video as part of their human interest stories. The mainstream press covered the story about user LonelyGirl15. US television station NBC used YouTube to promote its fall lineup. The most recent development that demonstrates the popularity of the cybertainment boom is the news about Warner Music agreeing to distribute and license its copyrighted songs and other material through YouTube (Liedtke).

Another interesting thing that I spotted in the AP story was that YouTube has developed a system to detect when homemade videos are using copyrighted material, which will allow Warner's to review the material and decide whether to accept or reject it (Liedtke). I think that this is a good thing.

Lately, it appears that YouTube has been overzealous about determining what is a violation of copyrighted material. In YouTube's defense, they were being threatened with legal action by Universal, and I think that they would rather be safe than sorry. This new technology will allow YouTube to let the owner know about videos using the owner's material, and the owner of the copyrighted material can review the material and determine whether it is fair use or not.

Source: Michael Liedtke. Warner to Issue Music Through YouTube. Associated Press, 18 September 2006. Retrieved 18 September 2006 from

Thursday, September 7, 2006

The DRAM Cartel Get Their Due

From 1992 to 2002, the US Justice Department investigated four companies that manufactured dynamic-access memory (DRAM) chips. These companies were accused of price-fixing the DRAM chips. The companies are:

  • Samsung Electronics Co, South Korea

  • Infineon Technologies, Germany

  • Elpida Memory Inc, Japan

  • Hynix Semiconductor Inc, South Korea

In a nutshell, price fixing is when business competitors who make the same product make an agreement regarding pricing. Usually, the cartel agrees to set a high price so all the companies can collect a high profit margin. (For a more detailed explanation of price fixing, view the Wikipedia explanation). The problem with price fixing is it is illegal in most countries.

Over the past year in various court cases, all four companies pled guilty to felony price fixing charges brought by the Justice Department and had to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in fines. In some cases, executives also had to serve jail time.

Now that the criminal trials are over, the civil trials have begun. Sun Microsystems, based in Santa Clara, California, and Unisys, based in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, have filed a civil suit against Hynix Semiconductor Inc. Sun and Unisys are seeking damages related into the federal probe into price-fixing chips. (JRL - more than likely, the damages are for lost sales on their servers using DRAM) Hynix is seeking to settle out-of-court.

Source: Associated Press. Sun Microsystems, Unisys sue Hynix Semiconductor in US court, Hynix says. Associated Press, 06 September 2006. Retrieved 07 September 2006 from

Friday, September 1, 2006

An OS Revolution in India

On August 31st, the government of the state of Kerala in India has announced that it plans on switching all of its schools computers from Microsoft Windows to the free Linux operating system. This change affects 12,500 high schools in the state, and the teachers are currently being trained on the new software.

One of the motivating factors in this decision is the state's top official, Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan, is a major supporter of free software and a detractor of Microsoft's dominance in the industry. Another factor may also be cost - Microsoft Windows XP software costs around 6,400 rupees, or $139USD, per copy.

However, this decision does have its detractors. M.A. Shahnawaz, the opposition leader in the state, believes that the decision was solely based on the bias against Microsoft and other corporate giants (Kerala also banned sales of Coca Cola and Pepsi in the state). Mr. Shahnawaz believes that schools should be given a choice of which OS the school would like to use.

What is your position on this decision? Do you applaud the Chief Minister's decision? Do you agree with Mr. Shahnawaz? Do you see points in both gentlemen's arguments? Post your thoughts.

Source: Thomas, V.M. Indian state switching all school computers from Windows to Linux. Associated Press, 01 September 2006. Retrieved from on 01 September 2006.