'MySpace Suicide' Case Expands Web Law
In what legal experts are calling the country's first cyber-bullying verdict, a Missouri mother has been convicted of impersonating a teenage boy online in a hoax that led to a young girl's suicide.
Lori Drew was convicted of three misdemeanors for violating MySpace's "terms of service," which requires users to submit "truthful and accurate" registration information.The impact of the case in a Los Angeles federal court is significant, experts say, in that it expands the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which was passed in 1986 as a tool against hackers, to include social networking Web sites.
The case has drawn worldwide attention and criticism from online experts, including the Center for Democracy and Technology, which accused the government of misusing the law.
The case was tried by the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, Thomas P. O'Brien, after Missouri officials determined that Drew had broken no state laws. MySpace is based in Los Angeles. O'Brien said the verdict yesterday sent an "overwhelming message" to Internet users.
Drew, 49, of Dardenne Prairie, Mo., posed as a teenage boy, "Josh Evans," using a MySpace account to send romantic, then disturbing, messages to one of her daughter's classmates, 13-year-old Megan Meier. Meier thought she was messaging with a new, good-looking boy in town. As the New Yorker magazine said in a January article about the case: "Megan and her peers carried on an online social life that was more mercurial, and perhaps more crucial to their sense of status and acceptance, than the one they inhabited in the flesh."
Meier, who suffered from depression, killed herself in October 2006 soon after reading a message from Drew's account that said: "The world would be a better place without you."
Drew faces a sentence of up to three years in prison and $300,000 in fines. Meier's mother, Tina Meier, told Wired that the verdict was a "stepping stone," and that she would continue to lobby for Drew to face jail time.
New York attorney Nick Akerman told The New York Times that the ruling was "simply another important step in the expanded use of this statute to protect the public from computer crime."
But former federal prosecutor Matthew L. Levine, who is now a defense lawyer in New York, told The Associated Press that O'Brien's legal theory was "very aggressive." "Unfortunately, there's not a law that covers every bad thing in the world. It's a bad idea to use laws that have very different purpose," he said.
Online safety experts told The Los Angeles Times that the verdict now put the onus on social networking sites to police their users' activities.
"I think the industry was hoping there would be a strong verdict blaming one user for abusing another because that way it's not their fault," Linda Criddle, a safety expert, told the newspaper. "These companies claim to have good standards and then do nothing to enforce them. They let people breach their terms and conditions and do nothing about it."
Andrew M. Grossman, senior legal policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, said the ruling could have a broad impact for Web site administrators.
"If this verdict stands, it means that every site on the Internet gets to define the criminal law," Grossman told The Times. "That's a radical change. What used to be small-stakes contracts become high-stakes criminal prohibitions."
And Phil Malone, director of the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard Law School, said that it could have a chilling impact given that the "vast majority of Internet users do not read Web site terms of service carefully or at all."
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