Falsehoods on MySpace

Monday, May 26, 2008

IF TRUE, what Lori Drew did is reprehensible. The 49-year-old suburban St. Louis woman is said to have helped create an account on the MySpace online social network for a fictional character named Josh Evans. Josh began sending messages to Megan Meier, a 13-year-old girl who went to school with Ms. Drew's daughter. He wrote in one posting that he thought Megan was "sexi." Megan soon became infatuated and proclaimed her love for the boy. But the flirtation ended just as quickly and mysteriously as it had begun. Josh's last communique to Megan came on Oct. 16, 2006: "The world would be a better place without you." Later that day, Megan, who had a history of mental health issues, hanged herself in her bedroom.

Ms. Drew was indicted this month by a grand jury in Los Angeles for conspiracy and three counts of computer fraud. If convicted on all charges, she could face 20 years behind bars. A lawyer for Ms. Drew has said that she knew about the MySpace account but did not create it or send or dictate messages posted under the name of Josh Evans.

It is all too human to want to see someone punished for the acts allegedly committed by Ms. Drew, acts that apparently contributed to, if not caused, the suicide of an emotionally fragile 13-year-old girl. As U.S. Attorney Thomas P. O'Brien, whose office brought the charges, put it: "Any adult who uses the Internet or a social gathering Web site to bully or harass another person, particularly a young teenage girl, needs to realize that their actions can have serious consequences."

But the decision by federal prosecutors to charge Ms. Drew under the computer fraud statute is as misguided as it is well intentioned. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act says nothing about "cyberbullying" or harassment. It was created to punish and deter hackers from breaking into computer systems to steal financial, health and government information. Prosecutors claim that Ms. Drew broke the anti-fraud law when she posted false information about the nonexistent Josh Evans -- a violation of MySpace's "terms of service" agreement. The Los Angeles federal prosecutor claimed jurisdiction over the case because MySpace's headquarters and servers are in Beverly Hills.

Under this theory, millions of Americans who post inaccurate yet flattering profiles of themselves online or post angry responses in cyberspats with friends are committing fraud on an hourly basis and could be prosecuted. This was not the intent of the law.

Prosecutors are right to explore all legal options when they believe that someone is responsible for harming another. They can be forgiven for wanting to help bring justice in the case of a young and vulnerable girl who was traumatized by an exploitative online exchange. But they are wrong to contort the law to fit the alleged wrongdoing; this does not represent justice for Megan, and it puts millions of others legally at risk in the future.

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