Lori Drew indicted in Myspace hoax suicide (updated)

About a year and a half ago, Megan Meier hung herself after a boy she liked and talked to via MySpace turned on her. Turns out the “boy” was a hoax; a fake profile created by Megan’s friend (and also her neighbor), another teenage girl and her friend’s mother, Lori Drew.

[Drew] claims the profile was the work of her teenage daughter and a teenage employee called Ashley Grills.

Last month, Grills, now 19, went on national TV saying that while she was responsible for setting up the fake Josh profile, Lori Drew and her daughter were also involved in the cruel hoax.

The message was supposed to end the online relationship with “Josh” because Grills felt the joke had gone too far. “I was trying to get her angry so she would leave him alone and I could get rid of the whole MySpace,” Grills said.

This is a well-intentioned indictment [pdf]. After all, a girl is dead and it seems that but for the hoax, she would be alive. Yet, there is a problem: The indictment was returned by a Federal grand jury in Los Angeles, while the Drews live in St. Louis, MO.

Local authorities in St. Louis investigated this incident last year, but were unable to find a law that Drew violated, so no one was charged.

Now, Federal prosecutors have their ham sandwich.

In their eagerness to visit justice on a 49-year-old woman involved in the Megan Meier MySpace suicide tragedy, federal prosecutors in Los Angeles are resorting to a novel and dangerous interpretation of a decades-old computer crime law — potentially making a felon out of anybody who violates the terms of service of any website, experts say.

Lori Drew, of O’Fallon, Missouri, is charged with one count of conspiracy and three violations of the anti-hacking Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, in a case involving cyberbullying through a fake MySpace profile.

Volokh Orin Kerr, correctly in my opinion, lists three major problems with this indictment:

Is it a federal crime to violate contractual limitations on use of a computer?… If the computer owner says that you can only access the computer if you are left-handed, or if you agree to be nice, are you committing a crime if you use the computer and are nasty or you are right-handed? If you violate the Terms of Service, are you committing a crime?

[T]he crime requires the government to show that Drew intended to violate the Terms of Service. That is, lack of authorization must be intentional — it must have been Drew’s conscious object to have violated the TOS.

The third hurdle, and perhaps the easiest way for the defense to win, is that the government’s theory requires proof that the goal of the conspiracy was to obtain information…Her apparent goal was to harass her victim and to cause emotional distress, not to obtain information from her.

Dan Solove at Co-Op is not so sure about the last one, but even if you take that out, I think #2 is a major hurdle. How can they ever prove that a) Drew read the TOS, b) understood that the TOS prevented her from setting up a fake profile to gather information about a daughter’s friend and c) intentionally violated the terms of the TOS? Just won’t happen.

While it would be ideal to have someone on whom to assign blame, it should not come at the risk of stretching the law to fit the circumstances of a particular case. When we start molding the law and stretching it and twisting it to reach one, individual, particularized goal, we start to make it extremely fluid and dangerous in its application.

[Update: Scott has more on this angle here.]

As we see time and again, there are profoundly tragic events that occur in society, for which there is no one who is legally at fault. This seems to be another of those. Of course, that’s no solace to Meier’s family, but this is a very attenuated application of a Federal law.

Photo credit: The Age/AP

9 thoughts on “Lori Drew indicted in Myspace hoax suicide (updated)

  1. Karoli

    Here’s what bothers me. An adult, with full knowledge of Megan Meier’s ADHD and depression, stalked this child and harassed her with no intention other than to punish her for perceived slights against her daughter.

    Had she done such a thing in real time, or hired someone to do it, she would have been subject to stalking and/or harassment laws, but because she hid behind the curtain of the internet, she was able to play the evil puppeteer with absolutely no accountability.

    It doesn’t make me happy to have her brought up on ‘technicalities’, but it does give me some measure of satisfaction to put idiots on notice about bad internet behavior, particularly with respect to MySpace, which I see as nothing more than a cesspool of teenage drama and angst.

    1. Gideon Post author

      No doubt there’s something very wrong with what she did, but the problem is that the use of this law opens several dangerous doors. I mean, how many times have we provided false information while registering? There’s a website dedicated to that.

      I think the Meier’s best remedy might lie in a civil suit.

      It also goes to show that laws of some states are woefully inadequate in dealing with the internet revolution and problems associated with interaction over the web.

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  3. KenS

    May I ask what you suggest?

    Do you at least feel that people shouldn’t be allowed to create false identities online with the intention of harming others? I mean, isn’t that how/why cowboys and “outlaws” and “gangsters” created aliases? I can’t go to the DMV and assume a fake identity, why should I be allowed to online – especially with the intent of harassment.

    1. A Voice of Sanity

      You are walking into very difficult territory here. The police do this, they will even deceive witnesses not just suspects. The state does this, they will create entire identities for actual criminals as a reward for testimony. Many people do this online, no one wants to be ‘dooced’ for their postings. People who want to discuss sexuality, religion, politics without repercussions do this and with good reason.

      I regard the Internet as a giant bazaar in a foreign country with few rules. You can’t make it safe enough for children, and it is as neglectful of parents to let children use it unsupervised as it would be to drop them off in a foreign country unsupervised. It isn’t a family friendly TV station, it is the wild west of information, good and bad.

      “On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Dog” — or a predator of any sort.

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