The Electronic Frontier Foundation is opposing the prosecution of a Missouri mom who allegedly created a fake MySpace account to harass a teenage neighbor, saying the prosecutors' misuse of a federal law that targets computer fraud could turn millions of Americans into criminals.
The civil liberties organization filed an amicus brief Friday (click for PDF), urging a Los Angeles federal judge to dismiss the indictment of Lori Drew. She was charged in May with felony conspiracy and three counts of intentionally accessing a protected computer without authorization when she violated MySpace's terms of service.
The EFF, a prominent voice in Web advocacy, said in a release Monday that "criminal charges for a 'terms of service' violation is a dramatic misapplication of the CFAA (Computer Fraud and Abuse Act), with far-ranging consequences for American computer users." The organization adds--in theory at least--that users who don't read the terms of service on Web sites they visit would be accused of a federal crime.
The CFAA is usually used to prosecute hackers and identity thieves. But the EFF argues that citing the law for a terms of service violation would mean, for example, that anyone under the age of 18 who uses the Google search engine would face criminal charges.
According to police, Drew created a fake MySpace account and posed as a teenager named "Josh Evans" to befriend and verbally attack 13-year-old Megan Meier, a former friend of Drew's daughter. It was reported that after a particularly hurtful conversation with "Josh" in October 2006, Megan committed suicide in her O'Fallon, Mo., home.
The case drew national attention after a local newspaper reported the story, but Missouri prosecutors could not prove that Drew broke any laws. Instead, charges were brought in a Los Angeles federal court, utilizing the CFAA to indict Drew for violating MySpace's terms of service.
According to those terms, users agree that: "By using the MySpace Services, you represent and warrant that all registration information you submit is truthful and accurate and you will maintain the accuracy of such information." Members also acknowledge that harassment is prohibited.
The argument now being made by the EFF was advanced by Drew's attorney in late July. He said the law being used to prosecute Drew is flawed, unconstitutionally vague, and tries to criminalize behavior committed by millions online every day. Drew faces 20 years in prison; she has pleaded not guilty.
Although the EFF is campaigning against the indictment of Drew, it nonetheless called Meier's suicide "tragic."