MySpace Suicide Case Threatens Us All

Once again, the desire for justice is outracing the law and potentially exposing to a federal felony beef anyone who has ever violated his or her terms of service with a web provider.

You are, no doubt, familiar with the case of Lori Drew, the 49-year-old St. Louis woman who, along with her teenage daughter and another teenager, allegedly signed up for a MySpace account under the fake identity of a teenage boy. From there, the three sent cruel messages to teenager Megan Meier of Dardenne Prairie, Mo.

Meier, who suffered from clinical depression, hung herself shortly after receiving the e-mails. Nasty stuff indeed, but Missouri officers reviewed laws related to stalking, harassment and child endangerment and could find nothing to file charges against Drew.

That, however, didn't stop a Los Angeles federal grand jury from charging Drew May 16 with one count of conspiracy and three violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Why LA? It is the home of MySpace.

Federal prosecutors decided Drew gained "unauthorized access" to MySpace's computers by submitting false information to the social networking site. Drew is also charged with soliciting personal information from minors, another violation of MySpace's terms of service.

Drew faces up to 20 years in prison, perhaps rightly so, but for all the wrong reasons.

"Experts say that this novel claim, if successful, could be used to argue violations of the Fraud and Abuse Act in other cases where a user violates a site's terms of service," writes Cynthia Brumfield, president of Emerging Media Dynamics and author of the IP Democracy blog.

That's right: terms of service. I am confident each and every one of you always carefully reads those terms when signing up for, say, free e-mail accounts, using false information. Or, as Brumfield points out, "How many of us know whether or not that deception is a violation of the e-mail provider's agreement?"

Even the U.S. Attorney Thomas O'Brien admits this is a first since the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act has previously only been used in hacking cases.

The U.S. attorney, Thomas O'Brien, said this was the first time the federal statute on accessing protected computers has been used in a social-networking case. It has been used in the past to address hacking.

As the legal eagles at the Center for Democracy and Technology see it, "The federal government in this case is stretching this saying that it is now a federal crime to use a public website if you do not follow every rule set by the website."