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Judge acquits mother in MySpace suicide case

Violating terms of service not a criminal offense

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A federal judge has officially acquitted Lori Drew, the Missouri mother accused of using MySpace to bully a 13-year-old neighbor girl who later committed suicide.

In July, US District Judge George Wu in Los Angeles had tentatively overturned three misdemeanor counts against Drew of illegally accessing computers without authorization.

Prosecutors had argued that Drew's violation of MySpace's terms of service by creating a fictional account used to disparage the teenager was tantamount to illegal hacking under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).

In a ruling filed late Friday, Wu said the earlier guilty verdict by a jury based on a violation of a website's terms of service risked setting a constitutionally vague precedent that would "convert a multitude of otherwise innocent Internet users into misdemeanant criminals."

Drew is accused of conspiring to create the fake MySpace account of a fictional youth named "Josh Evans" with her daughter Sarah and then-18-year-old friend of the family, Ashley Grills. Prosecutors alleged the three used the profile to befriend a neighboring teen, Megan Meier, in order to find out if she was spreading gossip about Drew's daughter. Eventually, one of the participants turned against Meier, telling her through "Josh" that the world would be a better place without her.

Meier hanged herself in her bedroom closet a few hours later.

If the verdict was allowed to stand, Drew faced three years in prison and a $300,000 fine in the case. Wu reversed the decision on the basis that it would make criminals out of anyone who violated a website's terms of service.

"One need only look to the [MySpace terms of service] to see the expansive and elaborate scope of such provisions whose breach engenders the potential for criminal prosecutions," judge Wu wrote. "Obvious examples of such breadth would include: 1) the lonely-heart who submits intentionally inaccurate data about his or her age height and/or physical appearance...2) the student who posts candid photographs of classmates without their permission...3) the exasperated parent who sends out a group message to neighborhood friends entreating them to purchase his or her daughter's girl scout cookies..."

Wu added that one doesn't even need to consider hypotheticals to see the problem: "In this case, Megan (who was then 13 years old) had her own profile on MySpace, which was in clear violations of the [terms of service] which requires that users be '14 years of age or older," he wrote. "No one would seriously suggest that Megan's conduct was criminal or should be subject to criminal prosecution."

Wu further contended that because websites like MySpace are allowed to unilaterally modify the terms of service, members would be forced to review the terms each time the logged on to avoid violating some new provision.

"If every such breach does qualify, then there is absolutely no limitation or criteria as to which of the breaches should merit criminal prosecution," he said. "All manner of situations will be covered from the more serious (e.g. posting child pornography) to more trivial (e.g. posting a picture of friends without their permission. All can be prosecuted."

You can read the decision here (PDF). ®

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