Friday, May 16, 2008

Threat Level: Experts Say MySpace Suicide Indictment Sets "Scary" Legal Precedent

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By Kim Zetter EmailMay 15, 2008 | 8:39:09 PM

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.

"This is a novel and extreme reading of what [the law] prohibits,"says Jennifer Granick, civil liberties director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "To say that you're violating a criminal law by registering to speak under a false name is highly problematic. It's probably an unconstitutional reading of the statute."

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.

Drew is one of three people who helped set up and maintain a phony MySpace account in 2006 under the identity of a nonexistent 16-year-old boy named Josh Evans. The Evans account was used to flirt with and befriend 13-year-old Megan Meier, who'd had a falling-out with Drew's daughter.

The fake "Josh" ultimately turned on Meier and told the girl that the world would be a better place without her. Meier already suffered from clinical depression, and shortly after that final message she hung herself in her bedroom.

A nationwide community backlash ensued, after a news story published last year revealed Drew's role in the cyberbullying, and pressure was placed on Missouri authorities to charge Drew with a crime. But after investigating the incident, local prosecutors concluded last December that they could find no law under which to charge Drew.

That's when federal prosecutors began working to build a case -- a difficult task, given that there is no federal law against cyberbullying. On Thursday, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles unveiled its solution by charging Drew with "unauthorized access" to MySpace's computers, for allegedly violating the site's terms of service.

MySpace's user agreement requires registrants, among other things, to provide factual information about themselves and to refrain from soliciting personal information from minors or using information obtained from MySpace services to harass or harm other people. By allegedly violating that click-to-agree contract, Drew committed the same crime as any hacker.

That sets a potentially troubling precedent, given that terms-of-service agreements sometimes contain onerous provisions, and are rarely read by users.

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