Commentary

Suicide Case Stretches Definition Of 'Computer Fraud'

It's understandable that people are looking for someone to blame for the suicide of 13-year-old Megan Meier. But federal authorities in Los Angeles have clearly stretched the law in the indictment filed against Lori Drew, charging her with computer fraud.

Drew, a middle-aged resident of O'Fallon, Missouri, allegedly helped set in motion the chain of events that resulted in Meier's suicide. According to the indictment, she helped created an account under the fictitious name "Josh Evans."

Other teens then allegedly used that account to torment Meier, first by pretending that "Josh Evans" was interested in her, and then by having him reject her. After she received a message that "the world would be a better place" without her, she hanged herself.

Drew now denies that she helped create the account. But even if the allegations in the indictment are true, it's hard to see how they constitute computer fraud.

The government's theory is that Drew violated MySpace's terms of service, which require users to give accurate registration information and prohibit members from promoting "abusive" conduct on the site.

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It's one thing for a social networking site to request accurate registration information. But it's quite another to say that failing to tell the truth on MySpace constitutes the crime of computer fraud.

Computer fraud laws are aimed at preventing users from masquerading as others to hack into their accounts and steal their bank account or credit card numbers. Congress clearly didn't intend for such laws to transform every misstatement made online into a federal offense.

Additionally, people have a First Amendment right to use a pseudonym. That's not to say that laws against online harassment couldn't be used to prosecute the conduct that led to Meier's suicide. But Missouri apparently didn't have laws banning online harassment at the time.

If the feds were to prosecute everyone on MySpace who lies about his or her name or age, millions of people might be under indictment right now -- including co-founder Tom Anderson, who shaved five years off his age on his own profile.

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