On May 15, a Missouri woman was indicted on federal charges for fraudulently using an account on MySpace. While many people may pretend online to be someone they're not, this particular incident apparently had deadly consequences.
The woman being charged posed as a teenage boy who feigned romantic interest in a 13-year-old girl, Megan Meier. Megan later committed suicide after the "boy" spurned her and told her, among other things, that the world would be a better place without her.
Lori Drew, 49, of O'Fallon, Mo., was named in a four-count indictment returned last week by a federal grand jury. The indictment charges one count of conspiracy and three counts of accessing protected computers without authorization to obtain information to inflict emotional distress.
"This adult woman allegedly used the Internet to target a young teenage girl, with horrendous ramifications," U.S. Attorney Thomas P. O'Brien said. "After a thorough investigation, we have charged Ms. Drew with criminally accessing MySpace and violating rules established to protect young, vulnerable people. Any adult who uses the Internet or a social-gathering Web site to bully or harass another person, particularly a young teenage girl, needs to realize that their actions can have serious consequences."
A Tragic Turn
In the indictment, Megan is referred to only as M.T.M. because of juvenile privacy rules, although her name was previously disclosed in the press when the story broke in November 2007.
The indictment alleges that Drew, along with others, registered as a member of MySpace under the name "Josh Evans." Drew and her co-conspirators then used the Josh Evans account to contact Megan and began what the girl believed was an online romance with a 16-year-old boy.
In taking those actions, the indictment alleges, Drew and her co-conspirators violated MySpace's terms of service that prohibit users from, among other things, using fraudulent registration information, using accounts to obtain personal information about juvenile members, and using the MySpace communication services to harass, abuse or harm other members.
After approximately four weeks of flirtatious communications between "Josh Evans" and Megan, Drew and her co-conspirators broke off the relationship. Within an hour, Megan had hanged herself in her room. She died the next day.
"Whether we characterize this tragic case as cyber-bullying, cyber abuse or illegal computer access, it should serve as a reminder that our children use the Internet for social interaction and that technology has altered the way they conduct their daily activities," said Salvador Hernandez, assistant director in charge of the FBI in Los Angeles. "As adults, we must be sensitive to the potential dangers posed by the use of the Internet by our children."
Anonymity of the Web
Cyber-bullying is a huge and growing problem, according to Parry Aftab, a security, privacy and cyberspace attorney and executive director of WiredSafety.org, an online safety and educational program in cyberspace.
Aftab's latest initiative is StopCyberbullying.org. The group is holding a conference in New York June 2-3 to bring together industry, media, law-enforcement and government regulatory groups, educators and community organizations as well as mental-health experts, kids, parents and anyone who has a stake in the issue to try to frame and address the problem.
"Cyber-bullying is a much larger problem than anyone realizes unless they work in schools or in a social network," Aftab said. "Eighty-five percent of the middle schoolers I have polled indicated they have been cyber-bullied at least once during the last year. In other polls we've conducted, 70 percent of kids indicated they had cyber-bullied others. Only 5 percent of the kids would ever tell their parents or another trusted adult."
Aftab is disappointed that the defendant "escaped justice" for a year and a half, but is glad O'Brien stepped in. The conspiracy count carries a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison. Each count of accessing protected computers, each of which alleges that the access was for the purpose of intentionally inflicting emotional distress on M.T.M., carries a maximum possible penalty of five years in prison.
"Megan was not the first suicide from cyber-bullying, and sadly she has not been the last," Aftab said. "I believe the Drew indictment will be the beginning of people understanding what they do online has legal consequences."