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MySpace Suicide Case Raises Legal Questions

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The law has always struggled to keep up with the fast-paced, ever-changing world of the internet. A federal investigation of fraud involving MySpace could set important legal precedents. The case brings up issues of first ammendment rights versus prosecution of harassment and other cybercrimes, as well as the question of jurisdiction in cyberspace.


According to the Los Angeles Times, a federal grand jury in Los Angeles has issued subpoenas to MySpace and related parties in the case of Megan Meier. Meier is the Missouri teenager who commited suicide in 2006 after being rejected by her online boyfriend. The boyfriend, "Josh Evans," was later exposed as a fake profile allegedly set up by neighbor Lori Drew. It was reported that Drew's daughter and Ashley Grills, an employee of Drew, were also actively involved.

In spite of initially confessing to her part in the Josh Evans profile, Drew’s lawyer Jim Briscoe now denies she had any part in setting up the profile or directing anyone else to do so. Missouri prosecutor Jack Banas is quoted in the Washington Post as saying that "the author of the final message to Megan was probably Ashley Grills, 18 at the time and an employee of Lori Drew’s advertising company."

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LAist summarized the case last December, when the blog Megan Had It Coming was posted by a person purporting to be Lori Drew. According to her attorney Jim Briscoe as reported in the St Charles Journal, Lori Drew is attempting to have Google remove the blog.

At the time of Megan Meier's suicide, there was no law on the books in Missouri with which to charge Lori Drew. As a result of the case, the local Board of Aldermen passed a measure making Internet harassment a misdemeanor punishable by up to a $500 fine and 90 days in jail. In addition, Governor Matt Blunt has established a committee which will submit a bill changing legislation to cover internet harassment. But this legislative activity comes too late to help the Meier family seek justice. After a lengthy investigation, prosecutors in Missouri were unable to press charges against Lori Drew.

Prosecutors in the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, however, are exploring the possibility of charging Drew with defrauding the MySpace social networking website by allegedly creating the false account, according to the sources, who insisted on anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly about the case. The sources said prosecutors are looking at federal wire fraud and cyber fraud statutes as they consider the case. Prosecutors believe they have jurisdiction because MySpace is headquartered in Beverly Hills, the sources said.
-LA Times

There has been no official statement verifying that the subpoenas were served.
Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, told the AP he could not comment on grand jury matters. Lori Drew's attorney Jim Briscoe told the AP that the Drews had not been subpoenaed, and that he did not know of anyone else who had received a subpoena. "I do not know if it's true," he said of the report.

MySpace officials had no immediate comment.

-Sydney Morning Herald

It is unclear as to who has jurisdiction in a case such as this.
Whether a Web company can be held liable in jurisdictions other than its own state depends in part on how much interactivity the site offers. As a truly interactive social network, MySpace may not be able to argue it can't come under another state's or federal jurisdiction. It will instead likely argue that the Communications Decency Act protects it from liability, especially civil liability, in the case. -ecommerce times

According to this Fox News story, the Feds may be over-reaching in the MySpace fraud investigation, but that with internet law being so new, they always have to over-reach.

The ramifications of successful prosecution in this case are unpredictable. False identities are rampant on MySpace as well as most other arenas of the internet. Civil rights involving privacy as well as free speech go hand-in-hand with anonymity. Many bloggers must protect their identities in order to continue blogging. Even law enforcement personnel use false identities to lure predators. raises concerns over protection of anonymous speech

With the rise of the Internet, however, new attacks are being levied against anonymous speech. Corporations and even some local governments have been particularly aggressive about pursuing anonymous bloggers who post critical comments about them. Just last month, for instance, the EFF helped quash a subpoena seeking the identity of a New Jersey blogger who criticized his town for filing a malpractice lawsuit against its former attorney. Opsahl said it is important that the scope of the Los Angeles grand jury's investigation be limited. "Even if a theory of fraud against [MySpace] is viable, it should not impose any burdens on Web sites," he said. "A Web site would remain free to allow pseudonyms."

Ecommerce Times also brings up the value of anonymity:
Moreover, online anonymity plays an important role, such as by enabling people to report crimes without identifying themselves or blow the whistle on corporate or government corruption without the fear of reprisal, Kurt Opsahl, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation , told the E-Commerce Times. "Any law or precedent-setting prosecution that limits the ability to be anonymous would be a concern." -ecommerce times

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