'MySpace Mom' acquitted in cyberbullying case

The ruling reveals the limits of the law in cracking down on the growing problem of bullying online.

Nick Ut/AP
Lori Drew leaves the federal courthouse in Los Angeles Thursday after a federal judge tentatively threw out convictions against her. The case centered on a MySpace hoax directed at a 13-year-old girl who ended up committing suicide and was seen as one of the first to take on the issue of cyberbullying.

The Missouri mom whose Internet hoax prompted a 13-year-old girl to commit suicide was acquitted Thursday, though the judge said the ruling would not be final until he put it in writing – hinting he could still change his mind.

The case was being closely watched by legal experts nationwide. It is one of the first to define how law enforcement might prosecute crimes related to the growing issue of cyberbullying.

During the trial, prosecutors said Lori Drew used the MySpace social networking site to create a fictitious online profile of a young man who flirted with Megan Meier. Megan killed herself after the fake boy said the world would be better off without her. Prosecutors suggested that Ms. Drew – along with her daughter and a coworker – created the profile to see if Megan was backstabbing her daughter.

Prosecutors had asked for the maximum sentence – 3 years in jail and $300,000 fine, but a Los Angeles jury decided in November that Drew was guilty only of three misdemeanors for accessing computers without authorization.

At Drew's sentencing Thursday, US District Judge George Wu tossed out Drew's conviction, essentially saying it would have set too dangerous a precedent. If she was found guilty of this, the judge said, any Internet user who didn't follow the terms of agreement of a website could suddenly face criminal charges.

He plans to issue his written decision soon, he said.

"The judge did the right thing in a difficult situation," says Lauren Weinstein, cofounder of People for Internet Responsibility. "In this case, not only were [prosecutors] trying to misappropriate a law, but they had to come all the way to Los Angeles to do it."

The case was heard in a Los Angeles court because MySpace is based in Beverly Hills, Calif. It drew criticism from the beginning for its questionable legal standing. Missouri refused to file criminal charges against Drew.

But federal authorities were pressured to bring charges against Drew because of the outcry over the case, Mr. Weinstein says. "They felt they had to do something, they had to bend to public opinion. It was a very emotional case, it was a horrible thing," he says.

But prosecutors overreached in trying to apply the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, says Ryan Calo of the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.

"The statute was created and amended many times to fight computer crimes – crimes like hacking into a database.... It's not any free ranging way to get at any crime committed through a computer," he says.

Adds Weinstein: "If you are going to try to prosecute someone, prosecute them under an appropriate law."

But in 2006 – the time of the incident – there were no clearly defined legal avenues for dealing with cyberbullying. Today, there are several state laws that prohibit some form of malicious abuse online, and Rep. Linda Sanchez (D) of California recently introduced federal legislation against cyberbullying.

Ahead of Thursday's hearing in Los Angeles, Representative Sanchez issued this statement: "This case sheds light on how our laws need to catch up with new crimes like cyberbullying."

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