LOS ANGELES — Federal prosecutors yesterday defended their use of a cyber-crime statute in the case of a Missouri woman charged with using MySpace to create hoax that allegedly led a 13-year-old girl to commit suicide.
The prosecutors, rebutting a defense motion to dismiss the case, argued in court documents that the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is relevant to the case against Lori Drew.
The statute used to indict the O’Fallon, Mo., woman usually applies to Internet hackers who illegally access accounts to get information. Drew is accused helping to create a false-identity account on the MySpace social-networking site and harassing her young neighbor with cruel messages.
“Cyberbullying is a relatively new phenomenon, as is social networking,” according to legal briefs filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Krause. “It is, therefore, not surprising that there have been relatively few prosecutions in this area.”
The motions repeatedly stressed the rapidly changing state of law involving the Internet and social networking and argued that Congress envisioned the statute “as a tool to address all manner of cyber crimes.”
Krause noted that only recently did the Boy Scout’s Manual include advice on cyberbullying.
“Moreover, the vehicle for the cyberbullying at issue here, a social-networking Web site, only became mainstream after 2000.”
The government also answered a defense claim that the charges against Drew are vague and fail to state how the law is being applied to her. The motion said government charges are clear and meet all requirements clarity under 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ rules.
Drew allegedly used her false-identity MySpace account to convince her neighbor Megan Meier she was chatting with a teenage boy.
Meier, who was being treated for attention-deficit disorder and depression, hanged herself in 2006, allegedly after receiving cruel messages including one saying the world would be better off without her.
Missouri authorities did not file any charges because at the time they could not find any laws that applied.
In May, however, a Los Angeles federal grand jury indicted Drew on charges of conspiracy and accessing computers without authorization to get information used to inflict emotional distress. She pleaded not guilty.
The case was filed in Los Angeles because MySpace’s servers are in Los Angeles County. FBI agents in St. Louis and Los Angeles investigated the case.
Legal experts have said use of the federal cyber-crime statute on accessing computers may be open to challenge.
Previously, the law against accessing protected computers has been used in hacking and trademark-infringement cases in which the crime is obtaining information from a computer, not sending harassing messages.
Missouri recently updated its laws against harassment to include cyberbullying. Previously the laws only outlawed harassment via telephone and written communication.
Drew’s trial in Los Angeles is set for Oct. 7.