Misguided prosecution in Lori Drew case

What Lori Drew allegedly did to Megan Meier was despicable, but it
doesn’t justify her conviction late last month for violating federal
laws designed to keep hackers from invading computer networks.

Two years ago, Megan, a 13-year-old Missouri girl, hanged herself after
her online friend “Josh Evans,” who had befriended her on MySpace,
reportedly told her that he didn’t want to be friends with her and that
the world would be better off without her. But Josh was in fact Drew, a
49-year-old mother of one of Megan’s former friend.

According to published reports, Megan had been mean to Drew’s
daughter and Josh’s fake online relationship with Megan was a way for
Drew to retaliate.

During the trial in Los Angeles, it was revealed that some entries
made by Josh were typed by Ashley Grills, a then-18-year-old employee
of Drew who was a witness for the prosecution and was not prosecuted

The case has widely been characterized as a legal assault on
cyberbullying, though it is extremely unusual for an adult to bully a
teen. There is no reason to believe that Drew intended for Megan to
kill herself, but the case against Drew is frequently cited as a
warning to would-be bullies that their actions could bring severe
consequences to both their victims and themselves.

From what I can gather, this is a case of a squabble between two
13-year-old girls and a mother who intervened in a terribly immature
and inappropriate way. Adults are supposed to help young people
peacefully resolve problems, not exacerbate them. This is not so much a
case of cyberbullying as a case of bad parental intervention that had
tragic consequences.

We need to fight against rude, deceitful and cruel behavior on and
off the Internet. But that doesn’t justify a reinterpretation of
anti-hacking laws to jail people who misuse Internet services.
The legal theory behind the prosecutor’s case is that Drew violated
MySpace’s terms of service that prohibit misrepresenting your identity
and harassing others. MySpace rules, which Drew says she hadn’t read,
require that “all information you submit is truthful and accurate.”
Clearly Drew lied. But so have a lot of other people.

She was prosecuted under Section 1030 of the U.S. Code, which was
crafted to protect against unauthorized access to computer networks to
cause damage, steal information or money or jeopardize national
security. As far as I can tell, the law was not designed to prevent
people from lying about their identity or otherwise violating rules on
a publicly available online service. But that didn’t stop the jury from
convicting Drew of misdemeanor violations. The jury refused to go along
with the prosecution’s felony charges.

Based on this case, I’m one of millions of people who might also be
guilty of a federal crime. I didn’t harass anyone, but I did violate
MySpace’s terms of service by creating several fake identities with a
variety of ages to test privacy features for teenagers while I was
researching a book about MySpace in 2006.

And what about police officers who pose as teenagers to lure
would-be predators? Should they have to request immunity from federal
prosecution each time they engage in such a sting operation? I’ve even
heard cases of law enforcement people advising kids to lie on their
profiles to protect their privacy. Should they be indicted for
conspiracy?

There are plenty of adults who lie online about their age. I have a
friend who set up a profile on an online dating service using a false
age, an old photograph and the exaggerated claim that he was
“athletic.” A date might have cause to be disappointed or angry at him,
but should she have the right to demand a federal prosecution?

Even Megan, with her mom’s knowledge, lied about her age. She was 13
and, at the time, MySpace required users to be at least 14. MySpace
recently started allowing 13-year-olds to sign up.

The usual penalty for violating terms of service is to be kicked off
the service. Had MySpace decided to go after Drew in court, it could
have done so as a civil matter. But it’s not up to federal prosecutors
to take it upon themselves to enforce a company’s online agreement with
its members, especially if that company never asked for federal
intervention.

I can understand why a jury wanted to punish Drew for what happened
to Megan. But it’s not clear to me that putting Drew in prison on a
hacking charge will help prevent cyberbullying or future tragedies.

What is needed is an educational campaign that makes bullying or
harassing just as unacceptable as racial epithets or subjecting others
to secondhand smoke. Cyberbullying is a real problem but it requires
serious long-term solutions, not quick fixes and prosecutorial hijinks

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