A suburban Missouri mother has been convicted of three misdemeanors for her part in creating a phony persona on MySpace, actions that set in motion a series of events that ended in the suicide of a teenage girl. The case has raised questions about the potential dangers of social networking, and the legal limits of user and website liability for fraudulent behavior.
Lori Drew, a 49-year-old Missouri mother, was convicted on November 26 of three misdemeanor charges stemming from her role in creating a phony online identity, and using it to correspond with thirteen-year-old Megan Meier. According to Reuters, "Prosecutors say Drew and others created the fake MySpace persona of a 16-year-old boy to woo Meier for several weeks, then abruptly ended the relationship and said the world would be better off without her." Meier committed suicide shortly after the fictional suitor's last messages were posted, in October 2006. Reuters reports that Drew could be placed on probation, or may face up to three years in prison for the misdemeanor convictions.
Although Drew was acquitted of the most serious charges she faced in the federal district court trial, experts in cyberlaw and technology predict that the outcome of the case could shape the future of criminal liability for wrongdoing on social networking websites. The Washington Post reports that Drew's conviction -- essentially for violating MySpace's requirement that new users submit truthful information when signing up -- "expands the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which was passed in 1986 as a tool against hackers, to include social networking Web sites." A Chicago Tribune editorial points out that according to the verdict, consumers' violation of certain website "terms of service" could now result in jail time. And the Los Angeles Times asks whether social networks are doing enough to protect their users.