What the Lori Drew acquittal should mean for service providers

You know the story of Lori Drew — the mom from Missouri who was accused of setting up a bogus MySpace profile impersonating an adolescent boy. Lori acted as this fake “Josh” to stir up romantic feelings in young Megan Meier who, after being dumped by “Josh,” took her own life.

A terrible thing of course. And someone needed blaming. So federal prosecutors chose to go after Lori Drew. The jury convicted her of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (the federal anti-hacking statute), but today the judge acquitted her. Seems like a good decision, as the theory on which the prosecution based its case — that Lori violated the site’s terms of service by saying she was someone other than she is and thereby exceeded her authority — was shaky at best. The big problem with that theory was that such a reading would make most of us criminals. I’m sure you don’t mean to tell me you’ve never signed up for an online service using something other than your real name or accurate contact information.

Most smart people can agree that the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act was not the right way to punish this “crime.” Various states have enacted legislation to handle cyberbullying and are already prosecuting people in state court. But the problem is not going to go away. People will still do foolish things on the internet.

And to the extent that foolishness is criminal, the individual should pay a criminal price. The individual.

Using the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act to go after this conduct put the contractual relationship between the end user and the provider (i.e., Lori Drew and MySpace) under the microscope where it did not belong. The court and jury had to scrutinize that contractual relationship and the resulting authority (or lack thereof). They had to do that because there was no other way the government was going to win a CFAA prosecution otherwise.

Focusing on that relationship in this context did not make sense. MySpace didn’t have anything to do with this other than being a passive intermediary. Why should the inquiry at trial have gone to those kinds of questions? Why should the intermediary have been bothered? It shouldn’t have.

The bad act was (I guess we have to again say “allegedly was” now that she’s been acquitted) between Lori Drew and Megan Meier. That’s the space where the factual focus and legal analysis belonged. Not in the legal relationship between Lori Drew and MySpace.

Now that we have a sensible legal outcome in this case, hopefully prosecutors will take some more principled approaches and leave the intermediaries out of it.

5 thoughts on “What the Lori Drew acquittal should mean for service providers

  1. Joe

    It's unbelievable to me that an adult woman would stoop to that level of behavior. It's even more incomprehensible that a teenage girl should kill herself over an internet relationship. But that the mother was being held legally responsible for that girl's death was just plain silly. I don't know how or why prosecutors thought they had a case.

  2. drake

    Sad. Hope she burns in hell, living vicariously through her daughter is pitiful. Maybe there is a god who will look her in the eyes and laugh as she is sent to everlasting damnation for her clear cruelty. Enjoy a childs death on your mind.

  3. Paul Headley

    I am sure the outcome would have been much different if Megan Meier would have known that is wasn't really "Josh", but a 40 something woman writing those notes. And Lori Drew would likely not have even written those notes if she knew she would be identified. When will Internet service providers adopt technology that identifies the physical person logging in? Let's empower the community to police itself.

  4. ted

    The decision is incorrect. The reason the anonymity of the internet gives people boldness to do things that they would not do in person. When an adult can conduct themselves in such a way that is designed to ‘hurt’ a child a child is unforgivable.

  5. Paruchuri Sridhar

    It is very hard to believe that how relationships are getting damaged with such an ugly behavior. I personally feel that jury must punish such people so that no other person can do such things.

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