Lori Drew, 49, who used a fake MySpace identity to taunt 13-year-old Megan Meier, was convicted yesterday of computer fraud. Meier killed herself after being bullied online by 16-year old "Josh," who turned out to be a sockpuppet created by Drew to humiliate her.
Jurors aquitted her of felony charges and were deadlocked on a conspiracy charge, returning misdemeanor verdicts on three counts of accessing a computer without authorization.
For Meier's family, it's justice. Evidence at the trial demonstrated that Drew was responsible for a campaign of harassment–against a child–unbelievable in its depth and cruelty. Drew's conviction could be a valuable stepping stone to better laws targeting online harassment.
The court's ruling, however, is a problematic one. Here's Rebecca Lonergan, a law professor at University of Southern California, as interviewed by Reuters:
"The thing about this case that really bothered members of the public is the teenager's suicide, and the involvement of a grown woman in (allegedly) causing that suicide," she said. "And the main problem is that the charges weren't about the suicide. They were about computer hacking, essentially."
Drew's a callous sociopath, but she's not a hacker. In using the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act to successfully prosecute Drew, prosecutors have established breaking a website's terms of service as a criminal offense. The accused had to travel to MySpace's jurisdicton to defend herself, thanks to another clause in the unread, unsigned 4,350-word legal document that one "agrees" to whenever visiting MySpace.
Legislatures are working to ensure that harassment laws apply to the internet, but "in the meantime" decisions like have a legislative effect of their own. Here are a just a few examples from MySpace's Terms that now seem open to abuse by zealous prosecutors – even if MySpace itself would rather see the whole story just go away.
1. Obscuring MySpace's ads, or putting up your own ads.
2. Being "patently offensive."
3. Posting nudity or violent materials, or posting a link to a website that contains adult content.
4. Posting an email address, telephone number or home address.
5. Glorifying "illegal activities."
6. Promoting a commercial activity without MySpace's prior written consent.
7. Posting a photograph of someone without their consent
8. Promoting your band using sexually suggestive imagery.
9. Asking other MySpace users to embed your music player in their own profiles.
10. Copyright infringement
Dead Teen's Mother: Misdemeanor Convictions a 'Stepping Stone' in Cyberbullying Case [Wired: Threat Level]