On May 15, 2008, a federal grand jury Los Angeles indicted 49-year-old Lori Drew of OFallon, Missouri, on charges of unauthorized access to a computer, typically used in hacking cases. Yet, Drew's alleged actions had little to do with computer intrusions.
The middle-aged mother had allegedly created a MySpace page in the name of "Josh Evans" - purportedly a 16-year-old boy -- and used the page to contact a friend of Drews daughter, a 13-year-old girl. The girl, who had a MySpace page, is referred to in the indictment only as MTM (although the girls name is widely reported elsewhere). While Drews initial motivation was purportedly to get information from MTM about her relationship with the woman's daughter, eventually the fictitious online relationship between "Josh Evans" and MTM turned ugly and abusive. When the fictional "Josh" broke up with the pre-adolescent MTM, the distraught girl committed suicide. Only later did MTMs parents learn of Lori Drews alleged subterfuge.
A "crime" in search of a statute
There is no doubt that Lori Drews alleged actions are unconscionable and inexcusable. But is it a federal computer crime? If so, what is it about what Lori Drew did that is deserving of criminal prosecution?
Let's review the allegations in the case.
First, she created a MySpace page with false information, lying about her name, gender and age. Second, she used that account to communicate with MTM. Third, using the "Josh" identity, she flirted with MTM, and inevitably got "information" from her - most likely information about Drews daughter. Fourth, someone using the "Josh" identity -- there were several people using the account at this point -- broke up with MTM in a manner that ultimately contributed to MTMs suicide.
Nobody has yet alleged that Drew intended that MTM commit suicide or that she encouraged it. This appears to be a classic case of someone either intentionally or negligently causing another "severe emotional distress" - a civil and actionable tort but not a crime under current law. Indeed, as a result of the suicide, the Board of Aldermen of Dardenne Prarie, Missouri passed a law last November making it illegal to engage in a pattern of conduct that would cause a reasonable person to suffer "substantial emotional distress" or for an adult to contact a child under 18 in a communication causing a reasonable parent to fear for the child's well-being. It is not clear that such a statute would survive First Amendment scrutiny, and a recent study (pdf) showed that 7 percent of online teens said they have felt scared or uncomfortable as a result of contact by an online stranger and another study (pdf) showed that 32 percent of all teenagers who use the internet said that they had been targets of annoying and potentially menacing online activities, such as receiving threatening messages, having their private emails or text messages forwarded without consent, having an embarrassing picture posted without permission, or having rumors about them spread online. With the tens of millions of users on online social networking sites, the Missouri statute could conceivably make criminals of millions, including millions of other teenagers.
There is also a federal harassment statute, 47 USC 223 (a)(1)(E), which makes it a misdemeanor to "repeatedly initiate communication with a telecommunications device, during which conversation or communication ensues, solely to harass any person . . .who receives the communication." But was Lori Drews sole purpose to harass MTM? Putting aside that question, the statute may not even apply here since it requires that you use a "telecommunications device" which, under section (h)(1)(b), "does not include an interactive computer service." Both statutes, 47 USC 230(f)(2), and case law (pdf) make it clear that social networking sites like MySpace are "interactive computer services" so the federal harassment statute likely cant be used.
The Missouri "harassment" statute is likewise unavailing, as it generally just prohibits communications that "use coarse language offensive to one of average sensibility" and is a misdemeanor to boot. While several states have either passed or are considering passing cyber-bullying statutes, these generally are directed at having school officials develop policies to prohibit offensive online conduct and are not criminal statutes aimed at making such offensive conduct a felony.