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Is Technology Too Far Ahead of the Law?

It wasn’t until about ten years ago that installing security cameras inside of public restrooms and changing rooms was deemed illegal. However, as the seed for video cameras was planted in the year 1880 when the first movie cameras were developed, this anti-surveillance law was put into place very far behind its time.

Technology is constantly progressing and propelling us further into the future--but what happens when we can’t keep up? In several cases, such as the aforementioned example, as well as the popular criminal case of Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter, the law begins to fall behind.

We exist in an era ripe with social media and opportunities to connect with one another. However, this state of constant contact comes with numerous pros and cons. When hiding behind the protection of a computer screen, it is oftentimes too easy to leave a negative comment on a post or send a hateful message via text. Furthermore, messages can be interpreted very differently—especially by judges.

And in the case of Michelle Carter, technology can be used to spur on a suicide.

A popular case in 2014 was that of Michelle Carter and her alleged text messages and numerous phone calls which encouraged her boyfriend—who struggled with depression--to end his life. Carter was 17 at the time, and her significant other was 18. Conrad Roy died alone in his truck as a result of carbon monoxide inhalation. Upon thorough investigation of their thousands of text messages and phone call records, Carter’s electronic words were used against her in court.

This particular case made headlines because of the many implications for criminal cases that are associated with online speech, cyberbullying, and assisted suicide.

In February 2019, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that Carter acted with criminal intent. She was sentenced to 15 months in prison for involuntary manslaughter.

If text messages can lead to criminal indictments, will we go as far as to interpret knife and gun emojis as legitimate threats (although the infamous gun emoji was discontinued and replaced with a water gun in a somewhat halfhearted attempt to de-escalate text messaging exchanges)? Recent state court decisions have found that in certain cases, sending text messages can be enough to legally create danger. Will laws be created and enforced to ensure that the far-reaching consequences of emails, Tweets, and texts comes to an end?

Social media and instant messaging have become vehicles for violence, and lives have been taken as consequence. New technologies have reshaped what it means to create danger, but the law is trailing far behind.­