Opinion: Cyber liberties groups protest indictment in MySpace cyberbully death

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Megan Meier’s story is tragic -- the 13-year-old Missouri girl hung herself in 2006, unable to cope with the verbal abuse suddenly heaped upon her by a supposed friend on MySpace. But three consumer advocacy groups and 14 law professors have urged a federal judge not to let federal prosecutors put all Internet users in legal jeopardy in their zeal to punish someone for Megan’s death.

Here’s the background. Megan’s hurtful MySpace pal, purportedly a flirtatious 16-year-old boy who was new to the area, turned out to be a hoax perpetrated by a handful of people in her neighborhood. Among them were Lori Drews, whose 13-year-old daughter had fallen out with Megan, and an 18-year-old girl who had a temp job working for Drews’ firm. But Missouri had no law against cyberbullying at the time (a situation the state legislature has since addressed), and prosecutors there declined to bring charges. So federal prosecutors persuaded a grand jury in Los Angeles three months ago to indict Drews for conspiring to violate the Consumer Fraud and Abuse Act.

As the Times editorial board opined in May, the indictment would stretch the anti-fraud act far beyond its intended target -- computer hackers -- and apply it potentially to anyone who violates a website’s terms of service. Drew’s lawyers have asked the court to dismiss the indictment, and on Friday the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Center for Democracy & Technology, Public Citizen the law professors filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting that motion. The brief notes that federal law has other statutes outlawing verbal harassment, which balance the rights of victims of abusive speech with the First Amendment rights of the speaker. The anti-fraud act, however, includes no such balancing test, and to extend it to violations of online terms of service would be particularly threatening to anonymous speech online, the brief argues. It also would put the government in a position to prosecute people for behavior that’s routine online:

This effort to stretch the computer crime law in order to punish Defendant Drew for Miss Meier’s death would convert the millions of internet-using Americans who disregard the terms of service associated with online services into federal criminals. Indeed, survey evidence shows that the majority of teenage MySpace users have entered at least some false information into MySpace, and would thus be subject to prosecution under the Government’s theory....


On the Government’s view, a user who is under the age of majority violates the CFAA every time she enters a search query on the webpage and obtains information. Under Facebook’s terms of use, if a user changes jobs or addresses or even her thoughts on what her favorite movie is, she would need to immediately tell Facebook, as this is information she has provided to the company, or run the risk that her continued use of the site could lead to criminal sanctions.

A hearing on Drew’s motion to dismiss the indictment is scheduled for Sept. 4.

The Nov. 19, 2007, AP file photo of Tina Meier holding pictures of her daughter, Megan, was taken by Tom Gannam.