Lori Drew convicted of computer fraud after MySpace taunts

lori-drew-indicted.jpgLori 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]

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32 Responses to Lori Drew convicted of computer fraud after MySpace taunts

  1. zuzu says:

    @ NPRNNCBL

    I don’t have enough information in that regard to be more specific. But I’d certainly love to know where the parents were during all of this. How did they not see any warning signs?

    Assuming Lori Drew did what she’s accused of, she’s certainly a cruel woman. But the world is filled with cruel people, and parents are tasked with raising well-adjusted children in this regard.

    Was Megan ever bullied in real life? Actual in-her-face yelling, hazing, shoving, etc? Or was it all mediated by a computer terminal which she was in complete control of walking away form, turning off, browsing to a different site, etc?

    If the latter, how could her parents be so neglectful — not to spy on her Internet habits — but to fail to teach her that she was in control of how she used (or didn’t use) the computer?

    It’s like failing to hang-up the phone when some creep is on the other end. Seriously questionable parenting there, for the daughter to lack such basic coping skills.

  2. Jack says:

    The problem is that computers and social networking is so easy to use that anyone can use them. Anyone remember the good old days when admins use to say “The Internet is a privilege, not a right?”

    Not anymore.

    The Internet was a tool for a horrible person’s sick/selfish motives. In another era, she’s still be as miserable and deplorable.

  3. zuzu says:

    Eventually everything becomes illegal. And nothing will have gotten better.

    Reading those MySpace TOS makes me long for the essays of Jim Bell. I’m sick of all the newcomers tracking the horseshit from meatspace into cyberspace. (Specifically I’m referring to reactionary suppression of the portrayal of sex and violence, and “glorifying illegal activities”. These rules were bullshit in high school never mind in real life.)

    Lori Drew may be a horrible person, but more importantly, if your kid takes “cyber-bullying” to heart, you epically fail as a parent. How could they not teach their kid to “just change the channel” like with television and radio?

  4. zuzu says:

    Anyone remember the good old days when admins use to say “The Internet is a privilege, not a right?”

    They never said that.

    But I do lament the endless September. A sort of Golgafrincham B-Ark may ultimately be required. Beware the enormous mutant star goat!

  5. Jack says:

    Zuzu, yes they did:
    Item #5 on policy here:
    “Use of the Internet is a privilege, not a right. Any inappropriate use in violation of this policy will result in cancellation of your Internet privileges”

    And a Google search still sees that sentiment in place in libraries across the country. This was before the Internet was a commercial venture and more of a *GASP* intellectual pursuit.

    Regardless, if Lori Drew were hit by a truck it would not be that great a loss.

  6. zuzu says:

    @ Jack

    What on earth makes you think libraries have any clue (or authority) about “ancient” Internet culture?

    Show me the RFC written by a UNIX sysadmin and posted on USENET, or it didn’t happen.

    (Though I appreciate the inference of “visual presentation depicting sexual conduct of person under 16 years of age” in the link you provided. I remember when, in the early 1990s, there was legitimate rational discussion about competitive sovereignties for hosting and how in many Scandinavian nations (IIRC), the laws there considered 16, not 18, the minimum age for legal pornography. This was at the same time that people ran websites in S. Korea for downloading copyrighted MP3s via plain old HTTP because of jurisdictional comparative advantage — quickly followed by search engines such as scour.net and mp3spy.com.)

  7. Jack says:

    Well, Zuzu if I could dig up the user policy for NYC Internet provider PANIX from back about 1991/92 then I could win this argument.

    Otherwise, I have no idea what you are debating. Before AOL came into being and the Internet was flooded with non-techs there was a respect for what the Internet is and what it can do.

    A 39 year old moron harassing a teen is not a good use of this technology or any technology. Can we agree on that?

  8. ROSSINDETROIT says:

    A point that’s being missed here is that ‘Josh’ didn’t approach the girl aggressively, he romanced her. Later he dumped her in a particularly brutal manner intended to ruin her self esteem. Open bullying can be recognized and defended against. Lori Drew seduced a teenage girl through a male persona and then crushed her spirit in the most effective way she knew. That’s very different from open, aggressive bullying,

  9. ROSSINDETROIT says:

    And I can’t let this statement from #5:

    “(also, i dont see the big deal about the girl killing herself- if she was ready to kill herself, anything could have set her off, and it seemed that ‘Josh’ was the least of her problems when getting reports from anyone but her parents)”

    pass without noting its appalling lack of compassion.

    POISONEDV, go get to know some human beings. Eventually you’ll understand why the death of a teenager is a big deal.

  10. zuzu says:

    A 39 year old moron harassing a teen is not a good use of this technology or any technology. Can we agree on that?

    Of course. My original point was that when the Internet was still the “wild west” of the “electronic frontier”, I remember it as an enlightened anarchy (except for skeptics ranging from Larry Lessig to Geert Lovink). The argument basically went that there were no rules on the Internet because no one could really be hurt. The worst that could happen is that you were defrauded (as huge stockpiles of credit card numbers were shared around), and strong crypto (e.g. SSL, perhaps followed by digicash) was poised to solve that.

    So the “drivers’ license” adage of “it’s a privilege not a right” smacks totally opposite of what I remember the 2400 baud to 14.4k modem days of the Internet to be like. (Bt wht y sd dfntly snds lk hw wld xpct lbrrns t xprss thr cmmnd-nd-cntrl thrty vr tht nwfngld ntrnt. Whch sn ld t < hrf="http://www.bngbng.nt/cnsrrt.html" rl="nfllw">Bnntt Hsltn fndng Pcfr.rg.)

  11. zuzu says:

    Oh, and that current debate over “cyberbullying” seems incredibly tame (and kinda pathetic) compared to the old debates over assassination markets and BlackNet.

    (Not to belittle the unfortunate suicide of 13-year-old Megan Meier. I don’t think anyone is suggesting that aspect isn’t tragic.)

  12. davevontexas says:

    Zuzu, nprnncbl, with all due respect, guys… e-bullying *is* bullying in real life.

    Written communication is as real as it gets, especially when the the threat is obvious: “we’ve just crushed what little dignity you have left, and we’re going to post it to the entire internet”. And you can’t just “change the channel” when you’re the one on TV.

    Finally, while it may be attractive to blame the parents of the victim, somehow I doubt there was full-duplex, high-speed communication happening at home. If anyone would like to suggest that victims of bullying are *more* likely to communicate with parents and other authority types, I’m all ears.

  13. barnaby says:

    Wow, Takuan, thank you for posting that. An excellent quote from that site:

    >Andrew Grossman goes to the heart of the matter, >in the Christian Science Monitor:

    “What happened to Megan Meier was a tragedy, not a crime,” says Andrew Grossman, senior legal policy analyst in the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “This case should never have been brought. The strongest evidence for the prosecution had nothing or little to do with the charges. This verdict is a loss for civil liberties and leaves all Internet users at risk of prosecution under federal law. It is a prime example of overcriminalization.”

  14. zuzu says:

    Written communication is as real as it gets

    Hate to be the first person to tell you this, but all those threatening letters go straight into the circular file, along with advertisements from Christians and Comcast.

    If you can easily ignore or dismiss it, then it doesn’t qualify as bullying. Something else in real life must have been seriously awry with this poor girl for harassing emails or forum posts to be the final straw in her decision to end her life.

  15. Lexica says:

    Teresa @ #31:

    Physical abuse hurts. But unless you get hit in the head a lot, or otherwise damaged in ways that don’t completely heal, you get over it. Headtrips and emotional pain usually take much longer, especially if it happens when you’re an adolescent.

    I wish I could remember which Buddhist writer it is that tells this story from a sesshin or retreat they were attending:

    The teacher looks around the room and says, “Who here has ever broken a bone? Raise your hand if you have.” Several hands go up.

    “Now, who here still experiences pain from that break? Keep your hand up if you do.” Every hand drops.

    “Who here experiences pain from something that was said to you during the past week?” Every person in the room raises a hand. “During the past month?” A few hands drop. “Past year?” A few more drop. The teacher continues, “Five years ago? Ten years? When you were in high school? How about something somebody said to you before age 5?” The teacher looks around the room to see that a number of people still have their hands in the air.

    “Now then,” says the teacher, “about that sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me nonsense…”

  16. nprnncbl says:

    Zuzu- I don’t know if you’ve raised a teenager; I haven’t, but I’ve known some, and I was one once, as I suspect you were, too. Teenagers are crazy. We can wonder about and question parental involvement, but I’d prefer to withold judgement given what a difficult and tumultuous time adolesence is. I’d be surprised to find many teenagers that have any grasp of what they are and are not in control of, let alone parents that can teach them that.

    (Although I suspect your point of view may be that this is a modern phenomenon, and that our society infantilizes teenagers. Sorry if I’m putting words in your mouth.)

    The parents are certainly victims here: they lost a beloved child to a tormentor. While I think I get your stance about parental responsibility, it comes across to me as blaming the victim, and you won’t convince me otherwise.

    And I don’t think your comparisons to a creepy phone call, or suggestion to browse to another site, are totally fair. It’s not that simple to walk away from repeated harassment, although it may seem simple from the outside or in retrospect.

    I’m sure there are constructive lessons here for parents, but I’m at a loss. I’m with you most of the time here on BB, Zuzu, but I think the parents are in no need of our recriminations. I suspect they heap plenty of blame on themselves, and ask themselves what they should have done differently. It’s not for us to tell them.

  17. Takuan says:

    don’t need new laws, just enforcement of the old ones. Without subversion by slimeball lawyers and cretin judges.

  18. zuzu says:

    Still not convinced that any communication mediated by something you control (e.g. computer, phone, television, radio) can be considered bullying. Just hang up / change the channel / turn it off.

    If this poor girl didn’t know that, then there was something wrong with her, which makes me suspect something wrong with the parenting she received. It’s in the same league as a 13 year old not knowing how to dress herself.

  19. Tubman says:

    @#1, Takuan: Which are the old laws that weren’t enforced here?

  20. OLAF9000 says:

    I hope the victims family files a wrongfull death lawsuit against this evil person and takes her for every penny shes got and ruins her life in the process! i wish the victims family the very best no child deserves to be bullied especially not by adults and get away with it.

  21. Teresa Nielsen Hayden / Moderator says:

    Jack @14: I’m sorry, I haven’t kept a copy of the old user agreement, and what I mostly remember from that period is stuff like JHawk in Customer Support being innocently surprised that everyone didn’t learn UNIX from reading man pages.

    “The Internet is a privilege, not a right” sounds familiar. I wouldn’t have thought about it at the time because it would have seemed intuitively obvious to me. Fbzr crbcyr znl unir gnxra gur vagrearg sbe na rayvtugrarq nanepul, ohg V’ir xabja Frgu Oervqoneg zber guna n dhnegre-praghel naq Ora Lnybj ybatre guna gung, naq gurer vf ab pnony.

    Zuzu, many people have a strong and unavoidable emotional investment in their online interactions. They can’t just “change the channel” and write it off without regrets when a close friendship suddenly turns toxic.

    (This is the same reason I disemvowel especially unpleasant comments on Boing Boing. No one can just ignore them. We read what we see, and when we do so we soak up a dose of their nastiness. My remedy is to make reading them a necessarily intentional act.)

    You should read up a bit on this case before coming to conclusions about Megan Meier and her parents. She wasn’t an unsalvageable basket case, and her parents weren’t disengaged or otherwise in a state of massive fail.

    The argument basically went that there were no rules on the Internet because no one could really be hurt.

    That argument has subsequently been proved wrong so thoroughly and so often that I feel like I should be typing in an alphabet that has eths and thorns in it. Words can hurt. Language has power, and therefore can do harm. If there’s a more basic test for power than the propensity to do harm if misused, I don’t know what it is.

    Betrayal of trust hurts even more. We recognize that these are real people we’re dealing with, and so we trust some and not others; love some, are indifferent to some, find others incomprehensible, and toward a few may feel an irrational antipathy. And because we know these are real people, and interact with them on that basis, when one of them that we’ve trusted seems to betray us, it cuts us to the bone.

    The internet is full of these things happening over and over and over again. You must have seen it. Those people weren’t pretending to be hurt. Their pain was real. Mediation via computer terminal didn’t protect them.

    Was Megan ever bullied in real life? Actual in-her-face yelling, hazing, shoving, etc? Or was it all mediated by a computer terminal…?

    Physical abuse hurts. But unless you get hit in the head a lot, or otherwise damaged in ways that don’t completely heal, you get over it. Headtrips and emotional pain usually take much longer, especially if it happens when you’re an adolescent.

    To say that the internet is a place where no one can be hurt is merely to say that the internet is a place where no one has yet discovered how to hurt you. That’s why that doctrine hasn’t held up well: just about everyone who champions it learns better.

    There’s one other property of the internet I should explain, which is that it enables people to do nasty things they could never pull off in real life. In the meat world, the habitually vengeful mother of an ex-friend of yours couldn’t masquerade as a really cool boy who’s in your age group. That’s one thing.

    Another is that you can pretend to be multiple people. Most people can deal with criticism from one source. But when they get multiple overlapping criticisms from apparently independent sources that nevertheless agree with each other, the crushing force of those criticisms is hugely multiplied.

    (Can’t help it. It’s a hominid thing. We constantly check to see how we’re doing with the rest of the group.)

    Lori Drew pretended to be someone else, won Megan’s friendship and trust, became the recipient of her confidences, and then dumped her and humiliated her in the cruelest way she could devise. Very few teenagers have the emotional experience and sophistication to step back from a scene like that and say “Hold it. This doesn’t make any sense.” They wouldn’t be able to do it in a comparable face-to-face situation, either.

  22. barnaby says:

    *If we put aside our immediate reaction to the particulars of this case for a moment, we might be able to address the broader implications without our emotions getting in the way.

    *It is, needless to say, an emotionally charged case, but one advantage that a legal system has over, say, vigilante justice, is that it (supposedly) employs objectivity when addressing the facts and making a judgment.

    *The precedent set in this case could affect millions of internet users. Do we want to criminalize the act of creating a persona and writing whatever personal fictions we want under the guise of that persona?

    *An easy answer might be to say yes, but only when such an action brings harm or is intended to bring harm to another person, unfortunately that opens up quite a huge, nebulous territory, and it’s this territory that will be under scrutiny because of a case like this.

    *So you say to yourself, “That’s fine. It should be under scrutiny. That woman was heinous, and I would never do anything like that.” But let me give you another scenario: one boingboing user, using a pseudonym, insults another boingboing user, telling that user that his/her opinion is worthless and irrelevant. The insulted user turns out to be depressed and unstable and “as a result of this comment” (or so it could be argued) this person kills him/herself.

    *You might think that an example like this bears no relevance to the case at hand, and to a degree, you would be right. But I guarantee you that in the future prosecutors will be looking to the precedent of this case to win cases, as will legislators who, for their own reasons, want to end the anonymity of the internet.

  23. HeatherB says:

    @#3
    I agree 100% This woman is absolute scum and I hope she gets all that is coming to her.
    Bullying is something that has been ignored far to long by our society. The idea that it “builds character” is insane. For an adult to have done this to a child is deplorable.

  24. PoisonedV says:

    I find it almost as ‘deplorable’ that she is booked on false charges, fucking misuse of law because of personal feelings. This will turn around and bite internet users in the ass at some point
    (also, i dont see the big deal about the girl killing herself- if she was ready to kill herself, anything could have set her off, and it seemed that ‘Josh’ was the least of her problems when getting reports from anyone but her parents)

  25. acb says:

    I once read about someone who killed a young man whilst driving drunk, and was sentenced to pay the young man’s family $1 per week, by cheque. I.e., he literally had to write a cheque every week, reminding him of his guilt; paying $2 per fortnight or $52 every year was explicitly disallowed. Which sounded rather harsh, but in this case, perhaps a punishment of this sort would be in order? Then again, would someone like Drew (who appears to be a sociopath) even consider it punishment?

  26. Anonymous says:

    While this conviction may seem like a step in the right direction, I actually feel it’s sending the wrong message entirely. This woman’s actions seriously contributed to the suicide of a minor – and she’s tried/convicted on computer fraud charges instead of murder or manslaughter? The message this puts out there is that you’re not responsible for the results of your online bullying – you’re only responsible for your violation of the medium’s policies.

  27. Takuan says:

    “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.”

    why was she acquitted? Criminal harassment is long on the books everywhere, the method used is unimportant. All they do is spin new law to patch the holes created in the old law by opportunistic lawyers. Eventually everything becomes illegal. And nothing will have gotten better.

  28. Anonymous says:

    @Zuzu etc.: Explain how one might ‘turn off’ or ‘change the channel’ from malicious gossip being spread through one’s peer group via a medium one has no control over (someone else’s MySpace account, in this case).

    I had a rotten time in high school, like a lot of people, and it often occurs to me how much more rotten that time would have been had I been living a large part of my social life online, as most teenagers seem to do now. The opportunity for misguided kids to make you into an untouchable by spreading dirt via Facebook, MySpace etc. gives me the shivers.

    The only response my parents could make when I was having a hard time was to ‘ignore them’, ‘turn the other cheek’, etc. — which in the circumstances, was no use whatsoever. But what else could they do? And what more, I wonder, do you suggest Megan Meier’s parents could have done?

    That this wasn’t a kid but an adult adds a whole new layer of horror, but mechanically it’s the same situation — high school is a bizarre bubble where your personal worth becomes subject to an ongoing and vicious personality contest. Some kids learn to play it, and others either can’t or won’t.

  29. nprnncbl says:

    Zuzu @9:

    Lori Drew may be a horrible person, but more importantly, if your kid takes “cyber-bullying” to heart, you epically fail as a parent. How could they not teach their kid to “just change the channel” like with television and radio?

    I’m speechless. You might have a point, I don’t know. But you could certainly be more constructive than simply labeling the parents of a teenager harassed to the point of suicide as epic failures.

  30. mdh says:

    If you can easily ignore or dismiss it, then it doesn’t qualify as bullying.

    That says more about your worldview than it does about the world.

  31. Rob_Scheflo says:

    I think that there is a little of all parties to blame here. Yes she could have changed sites, like moving to facebook or friendster or whatever, and yes the woman, who still from what I have read has no motive stated, deserves to be punished. I think if your using the internet to hurt someone it’s a little shallow and cowardly. I’d much rather have someone hitting me in real life than have someone insulting me on the internet. The internet is both a wonderful tool and dangerous weapon, I think that parents should monitor their kids online a little more, but not full blown lock down no google or wiki. But in my opinion teens, girls more than guys, tend to take what’s said about them to heart, and are a little more emotional then your average adult. Either way this will definitely be looked on in the future for how to deal with cases like this.

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