A federal grand jury has indicted a mother on charges relating to harassment on MySpace, which preceded a 13-year-old girl's suicide.
The indictment, returned Thursday in Los Angeles, marks the first time that a social networking site user has been prosecuted on federal charges related to accessing protected computers.
Lori Drew, 49, of O'Fallon, Mo., has been charged with one count of conspiracy and three counts of accessing protected computers without authorization to obtain information to inflict emotional distress on a 13-year-old girl, Megan Meier. Because of juvenile privacy rules, the victim -- who killed herself after receiving taunts on MySpace -- is referred to in the indictment only as M.T.M.
Prosecutors said Drew posed as a teenage boy who feigned romantic interest in the victim. The "boy" later told the girl during an online chat in October 2006 that the world would be a better place without her. Less than an hour later, Meier hanged herself. She died the next day.
Court documents state that Drew and others registered as a member of MySpace under the name "Josh Evans" and flirted with Meier for about four weeks.
Once Meier believed she was having an online romance with a 16-year-old boy, Drew and her co-conspirators broke off the relationship.
"This adult woman allegedly used the Internet to target a young teenage girl, with horrendous ramifications," U.S. Attorney Thomas P. O'Brien said while announcing the indictment. "After a thorough investigation, we have charged Ms. Drew with criminally accessing MySpace and violating rules established to protect young, vulnerable people. Any adult who uses the Internet or a social gathering Web site to bully or harass another person, particularly a young teenage girl, needs to realize that their actions can have serious consequences."
Prosecutors said Drew and her co-conspirators violated MySpace's "terms of service," which are mandatory for creating an account. They prohibit people from using fraudulent registration information; using accounts to obtain personal information about juvenile members; using the MySpace communication services to harass, abuse, or harm other members; and promoting false or misleading information.
"Whether we characterize this tragic case as 'cyberbullying,' cyberabuse, or illegal computer access, it should serve as a reminder that our children use the Internet for social interaction and that technology has altered the way they conduct their daily activities," Salvador Hernandez, assistant director in charge of the FBI in Los Angeles, said in a news announcement. "As adults, we must be sensitive to the potential dangers posed by the use of the Internet by our children."
Drew is scheduled to appear in court in June. If convicted, she faces up to five years in federal prison on the conspiracy count, and up to five years on each count of accessing protected computers for the purpose of intentionally inflicting emotional distress on Meier.
Investigators in Los Angeles pursued the case because MySpace's servers are located there. The social networking site cooperated with authorities and is named as a victim in the case.
Drew has also been the victim of cyberbullying since news of her alleged actions became public.