Megan Meier was a seventh grader who had been diagnosed with depression and attention deficit disorder; she had been under the care of a psychiatrist since the third grade. As a result of her depression, she had suffered from some suicidal thoughts. Megan was delighted when 16-year-old Josh Evans began exchanging messages with her through MySpace. They became onlinefriends even though they never met face-to-face or spoke to one another. For about six weeks things went well, and Megan’s family noticed that the online friendship seemed to have lifted her spirits.
But one day the tone of Josh’s messages changed. He sent a message to Megan saying, “I don’t know if I want to be friends with you anymore because I’ve heard that you are not very nice to your friends.” Josh followed up with similar messages, and he shared some of Megan’s messages to him with others. Quickly, other people began posting abusive messages and online
bulletins about Megan.
Megan told her mother that she had suddenly become the target of an increasing number of mean online messages. When Megan’s mother saw some of the replies that Megan had posted, they got into an argument over the vulgar language that Megan had used in some of her responses. Her mother was also upset to find that Megan had not logged off the computer when she had been told to do so earlier that afternoon. Megan ran upstairs and shut herself in her room. Twenty minutes later her mother found her dead; she had committed suicide by hanging.
The last message Megan received from Josh read, “You are a bad person and everybody hates you. Have a shitty rest of your life. The world would be a better place without you.” Megan had responded, “You’re the kind of boy a girl would kill herself over.” Six weeks after Megan’s death, her parents were informed by a neighbor that Lori Drew, a 49-year-old mother who lived just four doors down from the Meier family, had created a fake “Josh Evans” MySpace account. The neighbor said that “Lori laughed about it” and said she
intended to use it to “mess with Megan.” Megan and Lori’s 13-year-old daughter, Sarah, had been friends but had had a falling out because Megan allegedly had spread gossip about Sarah.
The local police and the FBI asked the Meier family not to say anything publicly to keep the Drew family from knowing that they were being investigated. In December 2007, some 13 months after the suicide, Jack Banas, the county’s prosecuting attorney, held a press conference. He stated that Ashley Grills, an 18-year-old employee in Lori Drew’s advertising business, admitted that she wrote most of the messages to Megan, including the final message. After Megan’s death, Grills was hospitalized and underwent psychiatric treatment for her involvement in the cyberbullying incident. Banas went on to say that Sarah Drew had moved and was now attending a new
school in a different city. Lori Drew would not reveal where her daughter was living out of fear of what might happen to her. Neighbors avoided the Drews, and business advertisers in Lori Drew’s coupon book business were shunned. After reviewing the case, the county prosecutor decided not to file any criminal charges related to the hoax.
In January 2008, a federal grand jury began issuing subpoenas to MySpace and other witnesses as federal prosecutors considered whether to bring federal charges against Lori Drew. The grand jury in Los Angeles was given jurisdiction because MySpace has its headquarters in Beverly Hills. The U.S. attorney granted immunity to Ashley Grills in exchange for her testimony against
Lori Drew.55 The grand jury indicted Lori Drew on one count of conspiracy and three counts of unauthorized access for accessing protected computers—a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The case was to go forward not as a homicide but as a computer fraud prosecution.
The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is intended to prosecute those who hack into what are known as protected computers. It applies to cases with a compelling federal interest, in which computers of the federal government or certain financial institutions are involved, the crime itself is interstate in nature, or the computers are used in interstate and foreign commerce. Section (b) of the act punishes not just anyone who commits or attempts to commit an offense under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act but also those who conspire to do so.
The basis for the charges was Lori Drew’s alleged violation of the MySpace terms of service agreement by creating a fake profile for the nonexistent Josh Evans. Prosecutors argued that this was the legal equivalent of hacking into a protected computer. Drew’s attorneys filed motions to dismiss the case on the basis that violating the MySpace terms of service did not constitute illegal access of a protected computer. Judge George Wu ruled against the motion and ordered the case to go to court. The trial began in November 2008. The prosecution’s case against Drew was dealt a setback when Ashley Grills admitted that it was her idea to create the MySpace account and that it was she who clicked to agree to the MySpace terms of service. According to Grills, neither she nor Lori—or even Sarah Drew—looked at the terms of service. In addition, Grills had previously admitted that she sent most of the messages from Josh Evans. However, several witnesses said that Drew admitted that she had created the MySpace account with Grills and Sarah, and that she had
sent some of the messages herself. Grills did state that Drew had encouraged her to create the fake profile and told her not to worry because “people do it all the time.”
Drew’s attorney acknowledged that the case was indeed sad but that “it doesn’t amount to a violation of a computer statute. The reality is that there’s lots of blame to go around in this case.”
After just one day of deliberation, the jury was deadlocked on the conspiracy charge. They acquitted Drew on the three felony counts of accessing a computer without authorization to inflict emotional harm. The jury did convict Drew of three lesser charges of accessing computers without authorization. Probation authorities recommended probation and a $5,000 fine, while the prosecution
asked for a sentence of three years and a $300,000 fine.
Drew’s attorney asked Judge George Wu to grant a motion for a directed acquittal based on the defense’s view that the prosecution failed to prove that Drew knew that the MySpace terms of service existed, and that she knew what they said and intentionally violated them.60 Wu postponed his ruling until July 2, 2009, at which time he dismissed the case. Wu expressed concern that if Drew’s conviction was allowed to stand, it would create a precedent that violating a Web site’s terms of service agreement is the legal equivalent of computer hacking and could result in criminal prosecution for what would have been in the past a misdemeanor for civil breach of contract.
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