Cyberbully Faces Charges In Teen's Death

Girl's neighbor, 49, posed as boy of 16 in flirty emails. Computer hacking laws invoked to bring charges.

A Missouri woman accused of creating a fictitious character on MySpace to cyberbully a 13-year-old neighbor who then committed suicide pleaded not guilty to federal charges at a Los Angeles court yesterday. The case, lawyers say, could radically affect the way millions of users gain access to the internet.

Lori Drew, 49, appeared before the court on four counts -- one of conspiracy and three of gaining access to protected computers without authorization to acquire information used to inflict emotional distress. She denied all charges, which carry a maximum 20-year prison term. She was released on bond.

Drew is alleged to have helped create a fake identity on MySpace called Josh Evans through whom she then approached and cyber-befriended her next-door neighbor Megan Meier. Evans, supposedly 16, exchanged flirtatious emails with Meier over five weeks and then on October 17 2006 told her he was moving away from the suburb of St Louis in which she lived.

She replied: "I love you so much."

A week later the exchanges grew darker in tone, with Evans sending emails the prosecution claims were emotionally cruel. One read: "I don't know if I want to be friends with you any more because I've heard you are not very nice to your friends," and a final one said: "The world would be a better place without you."

Within an hour of receiving that message, the indictment against Drew alleges, Meier went up to her bedroom and hanged herself from the closet.

During the resulting public furor over such an extreme case of alleged cyberbullying, local and federal prosecutors in Missouri sought to bring charges but were unable to find any existing laws that could be applied.

In the absence of those laws, federal prosecutors in California, 1,600 miles away from Meier's home, have seized on an unusual and controversial route in an attempt to bring charges against Drew. They have invoked the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1984, which is usually applied against hackers seeking to break into computers in order to steal valuable information.

In this case the prosecution argues that the servers used by MySpace, which are maintained in Los Angeles, hence the location of the trial, were violated by Drew and her unnamed co-conspirators who used false information to set up the account and therefore broke the website's terms of service. MySpace is not a party to the prosecution, but has so far not protested against the action.

Drew was expected in court to record her plea, and her defense team said she was likely to challenge the case against her. She will be allowed home to Missouri while a trial date is pending.

The charges are thought to be the first of their kind involving a social networking website, and lawyers say they have far-reaching implications for the way in which the internet is used. However, many legal experts are skeptical that the prosecution will succeed in applying a law commonly used against hackers to the much more common practice of setting up a pseudonymous page in breach of the website's rules.

Dave Heller, of the Media Law Resource Centre in New York, said the circumstances of the case were distressing. "There are areas of hurtful speech that take place on the internet that the state certainly has an interest to limit."

But if the charges against Drew stand, they would have widespread implications for internet users, he said. "What's staggering is that the accused is charged with illegally gaining access to a computer network because she broke the rules of MySpace. Thousands of people are doing that all the time -- registering anonymously on blogs, or posting offensive comments. If we take this prosecution seriously then they could all be impacted by it."

Meier's mother, Tina, has set up a foundation in her daughter's name in which she seeks to spread knowledge about the threat of cyberbullying.

She has also launched an individual commitment, the Megan Pledge, in which internet users vow to fight against bullying.


Moves are under way to amend the law at state and national level after it was discovered that existing laws in Missouri, the state in which Megan Meier lived, could not be used to prosecute her alleged cyberbully. In Missouri state legislators passed a bill on May 19 making internet harassment a specific crime. The measure, covering computers, text messages and other electronic devices, is expected to receive approval from governor Matt Blunt. Illinois' state assembly passed a similar bill on May 22. Governor Rod Blagojevich is expected to approve it soon. At the same time, two Republican members of Congress are soon to introduce a bill in the name of Meier to make cyberbullying a federal offense. One of the initiators of the bill, Kenny Hulshof, is running for governor of Missouri.