LOS ANGELES — A Missouri woman has pleaded not guilty in Los Angeles federal court to charges in a MySpace hoax allegedly linked to a 13-year-old girl’s suicide.
Forty-nine-year-old Lori Drew stood quietly beside her attorney Monday as U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Abrams asked if she understood the charges and conditions under which she was being released on bond. She said she did.
Drew pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy and accessing protected computers without authorization to get information used to inflict emotional distress.
Drew is accused of helping to create a fake MySpace account that appeared to belong to a 16-year-old boy. The account was used to send cruel messages to Megan Meier. The girl, who had a history of attention deficit disorder and depression, hanged herself at home in 2006.
Drew was a neighbor of the dead teen.
The charges were filed in California where MySpace is based. MySpace is a subsidiary of Beverly Hills-based Fox Interactive Media Inc., which is owned by News Corp.
Drew, of suburban St. Louis, allegedly helped create the fake MySpace account to convince Meier she was chatting with a nonexistent 16-year-old boy named Josh Evans.
Megan Meier hanged herself at home in October 2006, allegedly after receiving a dozen or more cruel messages, including one stating the world would be better off without her. Drew has denied creating the account or sending messages to Meier.
Drew’s lawyer has said he will legally challenge the charges. And experts have said the case could break new ground in Internet law. The statute used to indict Drew usually applies to Internet hackers who illegally access accounts to get information.
U.S. Attorney Thomas O’Brien has acknowledged this is the first time the federal statute on accessing protected computers has been used in a social-networking case.
Rebecca Lonergan, a former federal prosecutor who now teaches law at the University of Southern California, has said use of the federal cyber crime statute may be open to challenge.
Lonergan, who used the statute in the past to file charges in computer hacking and trademark theft cases, said the crimes covered by the law involve obtaining information from a computer, not sending messages out to harass someone.
“Here it is the flow of information away from the computer,” she said. “It’s a very creative, aggressive use of the statute. But they may have a legally tough time meeting the elements.”
James Chadwick, a Palo Alto attorney who specializes in Internet and media law, said he has never seen the statute, known as the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, applied to the sending of messages.
He said it was probable that liability for the girl’s death would not be an issue in the case. “As tragic as it is,” he said, “You can’t start imposing liability on people for being cruel.”
Missouri police didn’t file any charges against Drew in part because there was no applicable state law. In response to the case, Missouri legislators gave final approval to a bill making cyber harassment illegal.