In a highly unusual use of a federal law in which legal experts describe as "creative" and "aggressive," a St. Louis, Missouri woman has been indicted in what may be the country's first case of cyber-bullying. Federal prosecutors say Lori Drew, 49, and others created an account on the social networking site MySpace pretending to be a 16-year-old boy to fool her neighbor, 13-year-old Megan Meier.
According to prosecutors, Drew used the MySpace account to establish a relationship with Meier, acting for weeks to be a boy interested in forming a romantic relationship her. A short time later, Drew suddenly ended the relationship, taunting Meier and telling her the world would be better off without her. Consequently, a distraught Meier committed suicide by hanging herself.
Drew is Arrested and Charged with a Crime
The federal indictment, which was delivered in Los Angeles after state prosecutors in Missouri declined to bring charges, is unprecedented, and legal commentators believe it may seriously stretch the federal statute on which it was based. The indictment charged that in violation of MySpace terms of service, "Drew and co-conspirators knowingly and agreed with each other to intentionally access a computer ... to further a tortious act, namely, intentional infliction of emotion distress." According to the prosecution, Drew violated MySpace's terms by using a fictitious name, among other things, and thus had no authority to access the MySpace service.
"This adult woman allegedly used the Internet to target a young teenage girl, with horrendous ramifications," said United States Attorney Thomas O'Brien. "Any adult who uses the Internet or a social-gathering website to harass or bully another person, particularly a young girl, must realize their actions can have serious consequences."
The Unprecedented Charges may Create a New Realm of Cases
The case presents a new wrinkle in the interpretation of federal law. Legal experts warned that such an interpretation could criminalize routine behavior on the internet. After all, people regularly create accounts or post information under aliases for many legitimate reasons, including avoiding spam and a desire to maintain their privacy online.
This new interpretation also gives a business contract the force of a law: violations of a web site's terms of service could now lead to criminal sanctions, instead of just civil lawsuits or ejection from a site.
"I think the danger of applying a statute in this way is that it could have unintended consequences," said John Palfrey, a Harvard law professor. "An application of a general statute like this might result in chilling a great deal of online speech and other freedom." Drew is scheduled to be arraigned in St. Louis but the trial will be held in Los Angeles were MySpace is headquartered. If convicted of the charges, Drew faces up to 20 years in prison.