A federal judge on Thursday tentatively overturned convictions against a mother accused of using MySpace to bully a 13-year-old girl who went on to hang herself to death.
US District Judge George Wu tentatively acquitted Lori Drew, 50, of three misdemeanor counts of accessing computers without authorization. To the dismay of many, she was originally charged with four felony counts stemming from her role in creating a fake MySpace profile, which is a violation of the site's terms of service. Prosecutors argued her skirting of the rules amounted violations of the US Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
Although not final until filed in writing, the ruling is good news for anyone who uses the internet. Drew faced three years in prison and a $300,000 fine in the case. If allowed to stand, it could have made criminals out of anyone who has ever entered a false email address, age, or surname while registering for an online service. That point wasn't lost on Wu.
"You could prosecute pretty much anyone who violated terms of service," he said during a Thursday court hearing, according to Wired.com. "It basically leaves it up to a web site owner to determine what is a crime...and therefore it criminalizes what would be a breach of contract," he added, according to the Associated Press.
Drew was accused of participating in the MySpace hoax in an attempt to find out if a neighbor, 13-year-old Megan Meier, was spreading negative gossip about Drew's daughter. Using a picture of a sandy-haired boy with broad shoulders, she helped concoct a boy named Josh, who over a few months used MySpace messages to befriend Meier. Eventually, one of the other participants in the hoax caused Josh to send a message that said the world would be better without her.
Meier hanged herself in her bedroom closet a few hours later.
MySpace terms of service compel users to provide factual information about themselves and to refrain from using information obtained from the site to harass others. Prosecutors from the US Attorney's office in Los Angeles argued that violating those terms to gain access to MySpace services was tantamount to illegal computer hacking.
It's fair to say the decision to charge Drew has been controversial, not because most approve of what Drew was accused of doing, only that she did nothing illegal. Last year, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Center for Democracy and Technology and other groups filed a friend-of-the-court brief (PDF) in the case arguing it could set dangerous precedents. The prosecution was all the more startling, given federal attorneys in Missouri, where both Drew and Meier lived, had declined to bring a case.
Prosecutors say they won't decide whether to appeal the acquittal until after they read the written ruling, which could be filed as soon as next week. ®