I’ve previously written about the case of Megan Meier of Dardenne Prairie, St. Charles County in Missouri, U.S.A., who committed suicide after being spurned by a boy she was communicating with in the MySpace social networking site. She was chatting with a 16-year old boy named “Josh Evans” on a regular basis, and had come to believe that a certain romantic relationship had been established between them. But one day, without warning, Josh turned mean. He called Megan names, and later they traded online insults. Other youngsters who had linked to Josh’s MySpace profile joined the increasingly bitter exchange and began sending profanity-laden messages to Megan. The online bullying finally drove Megan to hang herself with a belt in her bedroom closet. She was thirteen.
But Josh Evans never existed. He was an online character created by Lori Drew, the 47-year old mother of Megan’s former best friend, who lived just four houses down the street from the Meiers. Mrs. Drew created the character “Josh Evans”, according to a neighbor, because she “going to mess with Megan” for apparently breaking up the once-close friendship with her daughter. Lori Drew did more than that. She drove Megan Meier to kill herself.
Despite the cruel and vicious nature of Mrs. Drew’s acts, Missouri officials could not charge her with a crime. There was nothing in the state’s laws that would cover the perpetrator’s conduct of creating an online “avatar” with the intent to deceive and harm another person.
Mrs. Drew herself expressed little remorse, callously blaming Megan for being suicide-prone.
But the long arm of the law caught up with the talented Mrs. Drew, and she has been charged with one count of conspiracy and three counts of accessing protected computers without authorization to obtain information to inflict emotional distress on Megan, leading to her suicide. She was charged on the basis of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a federal law initially meant to address the problem of computer hacking. I have not read the indictment against Mrs. Drew, but she will presumably be charged under the provision which punishes “knowingly causing the transmission of a program, information, code, or command that causes damage or intentionally accessing a computer without authorization, and as a result of such conduct, causing damage that results in physical injury to any person or constituting a threat to public health or safety”.
Per news reports, Drew will be arraigned in St. Louis and moved to Los Angeles for trial. The indictment noted that MySpace computer servers are located in Los Angeles County.
Salvador Hernandez, assistant agent in charge of the Los Angeles FBI office, called the case heart-rending:
The Internet is a world unto itself. People must know how far they can go before they must stop. They exploited a young girl’s weaknesses. Whether the defendant could have foreseen the results, she’s responsible for her actions.
Drew apparently registered as a MySpace member under a phony name and used the account to obtain information on Megan.
Drew and unnamed co-conspirators “used the information obtained over the MySpace computer system to torment, harass, humiliate and embarrass the juvenile MySpace member,” according to news reports. The indictment says they committed or aided in a dozen “overt acts” that were illegal, including using a photograph of a boy that was posted without his knowledge or permission.
U.S. Attorney Thomas P. O’Brien said this was the first time the federal statute on accessing protected computers has been used in a social-networking case.
But it’s a stretch whether the federal law as presently worded could be used to address what is at first glance a case of serious harassment and cyber-bullying.
Rebecca Lonergan, a former federal prosecutor who teaches law at the University of Southern California, said the use of the federal cyber crime statute to prosecute cyber-bullying will be a novel, groundbreaking case. Lonergan, who used the statute in the past to file charges in computer hacking and trademark theft cases, explained that the crimes covered by the law involve obtaining information from a computer, not sending messages out to harass someone:
Here it is the flow of information away from the computer. It’s a very creative, aggressive use of the statute. We are in uncharted waters here. This case is unprecedented.While I think most people agree that it merits punishment to harass a young girl to the point where she commits suicide, it’s not clear that this conduct is covered by this federal statute. They may have a legally tough time meeting the elements.
She said, however, that because “a very bad harm was done” , the courts may grant some latitude.
What are the immediate implications of this case for netizens ? If successful, the decision in this case may make it a crime to create accounts or post information under false names or aliases, at least in the U.S. Violations of a website’s user agreement could also lead to criminal liability, not just civil lawsuits or ejection from a site. It could also raise constitutional issues related to freedom of speech and expression. It would be interesting to see how the case develops and how its impacts conduct in cyberspace.