Well, it's official: After indicating in early July that he was inclined to toss Lori Drew's conviction for a MySpace hoax that ended with the suicide of 13 year-old Megan Meier, District Court Judge George Wu of the Central District of California has issued his opinion overturning the conviction.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Lori Drew was the mother of one of Megan Meier's classmates. Mother and daughter decided to torment Megan by creating a bogus MySpace account for a fictional teenage boy, whom they called "Josh Evans." This creation of a false account violated MySpace's terms of service. Drew and other participants in the scheme had "Josh" contact Meier over
MySpace and flirt with her for several days. Eventually, "Josh" broke
things off with Megan and told her that the world would be better off
without her in it. Meier killed herself later that day, at which point
Drew deleted the "Josh Evans" account, according to the indictment
Prosecutors brought felony and misdemeanor charges against Drew under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
Essentially, the indictment accused Drew of violating the CFAA by
intentionally accessing a computer without authorization or in excess
of authorization when she violated the MySpace terms of service. A
jury acquited Drew on the felony charges, but found her guilty of a
misdemeanor violation of the CFAA.
Wu held that the
conviction ran afoul of the vagueness doctrine and could not stand.
Upholding a conviction under the CFAA for violation of a website's
terms of service and nothing more, Wu wrote, would grant the government
power to prosecute an intolerably large amount of online behavior and
would give citizens no clear guidance about which online activities
violated the law.
The case is difficult from an emotional
standpoint. Meier's death was tragic, and Drew's behavior was
deplorable. It is easy to vilify Drew and demand some form of justice
for the cruelty she inflicted on a younger, more vulnerable
From an online rights perspective, however, it seems like the correct legal result.
George Washington University law professor Orin Kerr, who argued Drew's motion to dismiss the charges in January, writes in the Volokh Conspiracy blog that:
This was an extremely important test case for the scope of the computer
crime statutes, with tremendously high stakes for the civil liberties
of every Internet user.
users often don't understand exactly what the terms of service for a
website are, and would probably be unaware that a violation of a site's
terms of service could rise to the level of criminal conduct.
This, in turn, could render many commonplace Internet habits illegal - making criminals out of us all, in effect.