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United States of America v. Lori Drew

2 01 2009

The internet has given rise to countless innovations which have forever altered societal behavior. Perhaps no modern technological development has had as prodigious of an effect on everyday behavior as that of the many social networking sites which have come to permeate the lives of adolescents and adults alike. Such websites have been adopted by almost all students in the United States ranging from middle school through college. Many adolescents now spend far more time per day purveying websites such as MySpace and Facebook than they do exercising or studying. As a result, many youths are deeply affected by the everyday occurrences which transpire on their social networking sites. As a result, the actions which one takes on the internet often entail substantial implications for the lives of those around him or her. There is perhaps no greater manifestation of this fact than in the life and death of Megan Meier.

Megan Meier was a fifteen year old girl with documented psychiatric problems when she was confronted with the incomprehensible actions of a local mother. Megan Meier attended school with the daughter of Lori Drew and had even lived on the same street as the Drew family. In a purported attempt to find out what Megan Meier truly thought about her daughter, Lori Drew created a fake account using the social networking site in September of 2006. Lori Drew falsely created the MySpace account under the name of Josh Evans. Drew went on to construct a full account using entirely false information including photographs taken by another boy without his consent. On the Josh Evans MySpace page, Drew posted a plethora of fabricated information about Josh’s background including that he was a sixteen-year-old boy living in the same Missouri town as Megan Meier. The Josh Evans account was maintained by Lori Drew and her employee Ashley Grills. Under the façade of Josh Evans, Drew and Grills befriended Meier and gained her confidence by pretending to be quite interested in her. Meier often exchanged intimate messages with the Josh Evans account, clearly manifesting her strong emotional attachment to the fictitious persona of Evans. Suddenly, Drew and Gills began sending malicious messages to Meier stating that they had heard terrible rumors about her. In fact, Drew and Gills went as far as to say, “the world would be a better place without you.” Shortly thereafter, on October 16, 2006, Megan Meier committed suicide.

In February of 2008, Lori Drew was indicted by a U.S. District Attorney in California on four counts of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. She was recently convicted of three of these counts for having violated the terms of service contract with and for having accessed the MySpace servers without authorization. The jury did rule, however, that Drew was guilty of only misdemeanor crimes and not felonies. Nevertheless, the jury established that it is a federal crime to violate a website’s Terms of Service. This hotly-debated ruling, which finds itself at the forefront of the cyber-bullying dilemma, will entail significant ramifications which will invariably extend far beyond the scope of this trial.

Terms of Service are found on almost all websites, yet more often than not, people choose not to acknowledge them or merely fulfill the necessary steps by clicking through a series of screens containing the terms of service. These terms are often quite lengthy and contain both vital and trivial stipulations. It is for this reason that almost all internet users have at one point in their lives, either unknowingly or consciously, violated a website’s Terms of Service. Therein lies the fundamental problem with the aforementioned ruling in United States v. Lori Drew which makes it a federal crime to violate a website’s Terms of Service.

As much as many websites’ Terms of Service include clauses necessary to ensure the safety and success of their users, there exist many Terms of Service which are so restricting that they would preclude many internet users from carrying out routine and necessary activities. For example, Google prohibits any one who is not of legal age to enter into a contract, usually 18, from using its services. Should a middle-school student be precluded from researching the Civil War for his history class because the Google Terms of Service say that such activity is not allowed? Absolutely not. Even though almost everyone would agree that restricting users under the age of 18 from using Google would be severely detrimental and completely without reason, if the ruling in the Lori Drew case stands, then it will indeed be a federal offense for all users under 18 to employ Google. Furthermore, the Terms of Service which Lori Drew was convicted of breaking are also overly limiting. For example, the Terms of Service assert that one is responsible for the information posted on the MySpace server and must ensure that such information is accurate. Hypothetically speaking then it would be illegal for one to fail to change his or her MySpace page after one ended a relationship or changed schools given that such information had previously been posted. It is because of these inherently limiting stipulations in almost all websites’ Terms of Service that the ruling in the Lori Drew case is so paramount to the future of internet activity.

The actions of Lori Drew and her accomplices is reprehensible. Such action is entirely unethical and stands in direct contradiction to the very “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” that our laws are aimed at protecting. As a result, action must be taken to ensure that such heinous crimes do not come to fruition in the future. This can only be accomplished, however, by amending our presently inadequate laws to keep pace with the ever-changing nature of the internet. One cannot rectify the problem of cyber bullying by erroneously employing laws which have been taken out of context. The tragic events which befell Megan Meier have manifested the inherent flaws in the current laws which are used to police the internet. Nevertheless, the laws which presently exist, as intrinsically inadequate as they may be, are the laws by which we are all expected to abide. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act was enacted to stunt the growing threat of hackers, not to regulate terms of service. The fundamental principles of jurisprudence cannot be subverted by our desire to manipulate laws, however merited such maneuvering of the law may be.

Many will argue that employing the CFAA in this instance does not establish an overly dangerous precedent because even though it holds that the millions of terms of service violations that occur daily are federal crimes, district attorneys will not bring such violations to court. As true as this may be, it is still not valid to rule out the potential implications of such a slippery-slope precedent based on the assumed actions of future district attorneys. Given the American legal system which closely adheres to the principle of stare decisis in standing by former precedents, establishing a precedent with as much of a chilling effect on the internet as that established by the Lori Drew ruling holds far too dangerous implications.

The ultimate goal of the legal system is justice. In order for justice to be served in this instance, there is no question that Lori Drew and her accomplices must be punished accordingly for their actions. Carrying out such a malicious and deviant course of action, on a depressed fifteen-year old no less, merits the most severe of punishments within the scope of the law. Lori Drew should not, however, be technically punished for a crime which millions of internet users commit daily in breaking terms of service. Apart from opening up a potential Pandora’s Box of legal complications with the slippery-slope precedent established by punishing terms of service violations, the act of convicting Lori Drew as charged is truly a subversion of jurisprudence; a disregard for punitive justice as established. Lori Drew must be punished. Not only children, but all internet users alike must be protected from cyberspace monsters such as Drew and must be afforded some degree of recourse should they be electronically maligned. Nevertheless, the methods of bringing about such necessary reforms in the law are not well suited by the current course of action. As hard as it is to stomach the idea of acquitting a person such as Lori Drew, there is no doubt that in order to maintain the fundamental judicial underpinnings of the United States legal system, there is no other alternative. Some form of retributive legal action must be taken against Lori Drew; unfortunately, this is not it.