The case against a mother who posed as a teenage boy to harass another teen online, in the process driving her to suicide, has taken another turn, as rights groups are opposing the government's criminal charges against the mother. The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy and Technology, along with Public Citizen and a group of 14 law professors, have filed an amicus brief in the case, arguing that violating MySpace's Terms of Service agreement shouldn't be considered criminal offense under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The groups believe that if the mother, Lori Drew, is prosecuted using CFAA charges, the case could have significant ramifications for the free speech rights of US citizens using the Internet.
The story about Drew and the tragic MySpace-related suicide of her 13-year-old neighbor Megan Meier is a complex one that goes back to 2006. For those not familiar with the situation, Meier had received messages on MySpace from someone who purported to be a 16-year-old boy named Josh Evans. The two became online friends, exchanged some online flirtations, and her family said she seemed happier after having "met" Evans. In October of 2006, however, Evans' messages turned sour as he accused her of being mean to her friends and began forwarding her messages to "him" around to other people, prompting malicious gossip (both online and off) to spread about Meier being fat and a slut, among other things.
At one point, Evans allegedly sent a message to Meier saying, "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." Meier eventually told her mother about the messages, who had told her to stop using MySpace, and the two got into a fight. Meier then went back to her room and committed suicide. Several weeks later, it came out that the person behind Evans' account was, in fact, a neighbor and the mother of one of Meier's friends. Drew, who first denied everything, but later admitted to creating the account, said that it was all supposed to be a joke.
Fast forward to this May, when Drew was indicted on federal charges by the Department of Justice for fraudulently and criminally breaking MySpace's ToS in order to harass Meier. These are the charges that the EFF, the CDT, and the other organizations take issue with, as they believe they could cause chilling effects across the Internet that would ultimately limit free speech. "The Government's novel and unprecedented response to what everyone recognizes as a tragic situation would create a reading of the CFAA that has dangerous ramifications far beyond the facts," wrote the EFF in the brief.
The EFF says that a MySpace user doesn't gain unauthorized access to MySpace's servers by disregarding the ToS, which is what the DoJ's reading of the CFAA would criminalize. Additionally, the groups argue that the legislative history of the CFAA supports the view that it's meant to prevent trespass and theft on computers or computer networks, not improper motives or use. The EFF and CDT believe that holding Drew criminally liable for violating MySpace's ToS would be an "extraordinary and dangerous extension of federal criminal law," as it would turn practically everyone into federal criminals.
They point out that even checking out the popular dating site Match.com for the mere purpose of research into this case would have turned the brief's author into a criminal, as she is married and the ToS prohibits those who are not single or separated from using the site. "[T]he Government's theory would attach criminal penalties to minors under the age of 18 who use the Google search engine, as well as to many individuals who legitimately exercise their First Amendment rights to speak anonymously online," adds the brief. Although the groups agree that Meier's death was a tragedy and that there is a heavy desire to hold Drew accountable for her actions, they believe the First Amendment rights of citizens outweigh the "overbroad" interpretation of the CFAA in order to prosecute her, and urge the court to dismiss the indictment.
Further reading:EFF's amicus brief in The United States v. Lori Drew (PDF)