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Watershed Ruling in MySpace Suicide Case May Criminalize Fake 'Net Personas


Ms. Drew

This week Missouri mom Lori Drew was convicted for three misdemeanor counts of computer fraud. In 2006, Drew impersonated a teenage boy on MySpace.com and made comments that drove a 13-year-old girl — whom she suspected of spreading rumors about her own daughter — to suicide.

Drew was vindicated on the charge of accessing a computer without authorization to inflict emotional distress. But MySpace terms of service demand that users be "truthful and accurate" when registering, which enabled prosecutors to interpret her creation of a false profile as "Unauthorized Access" — a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986. Until this week, the Act has been used primarily against computer hackers.

In addition to casting a fresh tint on computer fraud and abuse, the ruling suggests lying about one's identity on the internet could be considered a prosecutable crime. Stare decisis places a burden on judges to make decisions about future cases based on past precedents with similar variables.

A 2007 survey found eight in 10 parents with children between 12 and 17 are concerned that their young could encounter predators online. And according to a UK government study, one-third of children between 12 and 15 encountered some form of cyber-bullying as of last year. Such attacks are often anonymous and result in the publication of embarrassing information or slurs about the victim over the internet.

But while Drew used her false persona to cyber-bully a young girl, others have well-intentioned reasons for fabricating identities online — like protecting themselves against personal information theft, wrote The New York Times.

"If this verdict stands, it means that every site on the internet gets to define the criminal law," stated senior legal policy analyst Andrew Grossman for the Heritage Foundation. "That's a radical change. What used to be small-stakes contracts become high-stakes criminal prohibitions."

Meanwhile, Drew's defense argues she never read MySpace's terms of service in detail — a common failing among online service users, according to director Phil Malone of the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard Law School. Last week the defense claimed Drew did not herself make the antagonizing remarks online; an employee of hers and other young girls purportedly created the account.

Judge George Wu, who presided over the case in Los Angeles, will hear motions for dismissal next month. If Drew's convictions stand, she will receive three years of jail time at most, plus a fine of up to $300,000.

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