Last January I posted an article describing the suicide of Megan Meier. She was only 13, a quiet, lonely girl who found a "boyfriend" on the Internet through MySpace. That boy, after several weeks of being her best cyber-friend, suddenly jilted her, saying that the world would be better if she was not in it. What was peculiar about this tragedy was that the boyfriend, named Josh Evans, was purely fictional, constructed through the wily imagination of a young girl who lived down the street. Allegedly, her mother, Lori Drew, not only knew about it but actually took part in this cruel ruse.
The article ended with a wrap-up of the legal issues surrounding this event. Both the city and state of Missouri were helpless to prosecute because there were no laws on the books dealing with Internet harassment of this sort. But federal prosecutors, working through the state of California, presented the case before a grand jury in Los Angeles.
As it turns out, this may be a benchmark case as the grand jury has indicted Lori Drew for, according to FoxNews, "one count of conspiracy and three counts of accessing protected computers without authorization to obtain information to inflict emotional distress."
What makes this case significant are two things. First, federal officials are involved because the Internet is not local. It is national. So even if a case involves you and your neighbor down the street, if it is information traveling through a server or router in Seattle, it is under federal jurisdiction. In the Meier case, the MySpace servers were in California.
Secondly, the case includes MySpace as the party that was wronged. In the past, companies like MySpace and providers like AOL, GCI and AT&T have been caught in the middle, often sued because a crime is committed using their services. In this case, MySpace has joined with federal prosecutors because Lori Drew allegedly violated their clearly stated policy, which says that anyone using MySpace agrees not to use it to harass or harm someone, to solicit information from anyone below the age of 18, or to provide false or misleading information.
In a similar vein, MySpace has aggressively pursued spammers that have used MySpace to con people, recently winning a $234 million case. Maybe that can't stop spammers, but MySpace has the legal clout to impoverish them.
Eric M. Niewoehner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.