The case United States v. Lori Drew involves a series of events on the social networking site MySpace that allegedly lead to the suicide of a 13 year old girl. Megan Meier, a middle school student living with her family in Missouri, had been under the care of a psychiatrist for a period of five years leading up to her death. She had been prescribed the drugs citalopram, methylphenidate and ziprasidone following her diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder and depression (Collins). Meier’s parents enrolled her in a private Catholic School for her 8th grade year with strict dress code rules to help alleviate her anxiety surrounding her weight and personal appearance (Maag).
The Meier family lived in the Dardenne Prairie area of Missouri in the same neighborhood as the family of the defendant, Lori Drew. Megan Meier was acquaintances with Lori Drew’s daughter which initiated the creation of the false MySpace profile of 16 year old “Josh Evans” (The Sydney Morning Herald). Lori Drew admitted to the creation of the account with her daughter and co-worker Ashley Grills following the rumor that Megan Meier had spread gossip regarding Drew’s daughter (United States v. Lori Drew).
Upon creating a MySpace account of her own, Megan Meier received a message and a ‘friend invitation’ from Lori Drew under the pretense of the 16 year old boy. Although there were several users of the MySpace account testimony revealed Lori Drew was the main user in correspondence with Megan Meier. Meier began an online correspondence with who she believed to be Josh Evans, regularly exchanging messages over MySpace (Steinhauer). On October 15, 2006, the friendly rapport of the messages from the Evans account changed and the following message was sent to Megan Meier:
“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.”
Following this message, several public bulletins were posted on MySpace through the Evans account. Megan Meier spoke with her mother where she detailed she was called fat and a slut over the MySpace bulletins. A final message sent directly to Meier from the Evans account detailed “the world would be a better place without you.” On October 17, 2006, two days following the first demeaning message send to Meier from the Evans account, Megan Meier committed hanged herself in her bedroom (Pokin).
While Megan Meier’s parents were aware of her online involvement, it was not until six weeks following their daughter’s suicide that Meier’s parents discovered that Josh Evans was not a real person. A neighbor who knew of the Evans account from her daughter notified the Meiers of the fake account and the participation through the Drew family. Although several people operated the Josh Evans account, Lori Drew admitted to taking part in the creation of the account with the intent of finding information regarding what Megan Meier was saying about her daughter. While the messages sent to Megan Meier were from multiple people including Lori Drew, Lori Drew’s daughter, Ashley Grills and friends of Lori Drew’s daughter testimony revealed that Lori Drew was aware of the entirety of the account’s activity (ABC News).
A year following the suicide of Megan Meier information regarding Lori Drew’s involvement was made public. While Meier’s parents and investigators were aware of those involved with the Evans account it was kept quiet to keep the investigation a secret (The Age).
Trial and Conviction
Missouri prosecutors announced the state had no plans of filing charges against Lori Drew in connection with the death of Megan Meier. Following this announcement the federal government planned to filed charges in Los Angeles to correspond with the location of MySpace. In violation under 18 U.S.C 1030(a) (2) (c), (c) (2) (B) (2) of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, Lori Drew and co-conspirators “knowingly conspired and agreed with each other intentionally to access a computer used in interstate and foreign commerce without authorization and in excess of authorized access and, by means of an interstate communication, obtain information from that computer to further a tortuous act, namely, intentional infliction of emotional distress.”
The conspiracy was carried out in violation of MySpace Terms of Service agreement, where a fictitious account was created to obtain information from a juvenile account holder. This information was obtains to torment, harass, humiliate and embarrass the juvenile member. Following the suicide of the juvenile member, Lori Drew and co-conspirators deleted the account in order to prevent the discovery of the group’s actions.
To accomplish the goals of the conspiracy, Lori Drew and co-conspirators committed several overt acts. Upon the creation of the false MySpace account ‘Josh Evans’, Drew and co-conspirators falsely stated their identity as a 16 year old boy. To make the account appear realistic, Drew and co-conspirators used a photograph of a boy as a profile picture without the boy’s consent or knowledge. The account was further used to contact a juvenile MySpace account holder to foster a flirtatious relationship, where Drew and co-conspirators told Meier she was “sexi” and “I love you so much”. The account was further used to tell Meier “the world would be a better place without you” and was deleted upon the suicide of Megan Meier (United States v. Lori Drew).
Lori Drew was indicted on four counts by the Grand Jury of the United States District Court for the Central District of California. These counts include Conspiracy arising out of a charged violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371. This was committed by Drew and co-conspirators by intentionally accessing a computer used in interstate commerce without authorization. The last three counts found Drew in violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act by through breaching MySpace’s Terms of Service agreement. Drew was found guilty on the first count of conspiracy but was found unanimously not guilty on the last three counts of violating MySpace’s Terms of Service agreement.
Acquittal and Further Legal Rulings
In November 2008 Drew filed for acquittal of her conviction under 18 USC § 1030(a)(2)(C). For conviction to be upheld under this section it is required that the computer accessed is involved in interstate or foreign communication and the defendant must have intentionally accessed the computer without authorization. With these two conditions met, information must have then been gained through the unauthorized computer access. The judge on the acquittal case, George H. Wu noted that these stipulations are broad and nearly any computer related incident can fall into violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Any computer connected to the internet qualifies as a computer used in interstate or foreign commerce and reading content on any website can qualify as gathering information with unauthorized access. The basis of Drew’s conviction was her unauthorized access through violating MySpace’s Terms of Service agreement by interacting on MySpace with a false identity. Judge Wu ruled that if a knowing violation of a Terms of Service agreement could not satisfy ‘unauthorized access’, Drew’s conviction could not be upheld (United States v. Lori Drew).
Judge Wu further ruled that there is a lack of actual notice to the public regarding the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and violating a Terms of Service Agreement. The statue does not state that an individual can be criminally prosecuted if a contract is breached in the form of a Terms of Service agreement. If a Terms of Service agreement can dictate what is considered ‘authorized’ this would make the statute vague because it does not specifically list what parts of the Terms of Service are in violation of exceeding authorized use. It was argued this is a particularly dangerous precedent to uphold because it would give a website or online service owner the capability to define criminal conduct. Judge Wu granted Lori Drew motion for acquittal since it was on the basis of an extremely broad definition of how an individual can exceed unauthorized use of a computer system (Zetter).