Guilty verdict in MySpace suicide case could chill Internet speech
The jury convicted a Missouri mother on three counts, but not conspiracy.
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After a while, "Josh" told Megan, "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."Skip to next paragraph
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The next day "Josh" wrote: "Everybody in O'Fallon knows how you are. You are a bad person and everybody hates you.... The world would be a better place without you." Megan responded, "You're the kind of boy a girl would kill herself over," and then hanged herself in her bedroom closet.
Federal prosecutors brought the case to trial in Los Angeles because MySpace is headquartered in Beverly Hills and the US Attorney has claimed jurisdiction. Missouri law enforcement officials said they did not bring charges because they had not found enough evidence.
The indictment laid out four charges: three for violation of a federal criminal statute and one for conspiracy to violate that statute, known as the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), which criminalizes unauthorized access to computer systems.
Mr. Grossman says the statute is "loosely drafted" – a problem that has received little attention until now.
Apart from the lurid details of the case, the legal ramifications are being watched very closely because "it could really widen the way the computer fraud statute is used nationally," says Mr. Scott. "Because there is a young girl who has died, and the evidence says the defendant targeted her to emotionally harm her, the case obviously resonated with the jury, especially since the [deceased] girl's parents were in the courtroom."
But Grossman and many others say the prosecution overreached.
"This is troubling," says Mr. Rampton, "because it could have a chilling effect on free speech on the Internet. There is a long tradition of anonymous free speech in this country and the tech leaders on the Internet are trying to come up with some good way to balance anonymity with accountability."
In the case itself, US District Judge George Wu has yet to rule on a defense motion for dismissal on grounds that Drew could not be held responsible for violating the service rules of the MySpace social networking site because there is no proof she ever read them. In comments to lawyers, the judge cited a rule under which he may wait until after a verdict to rule on the motion.
•Staff writer Gloria Goodale contributed to this report.