Will Internet Anonymity Be the Next Federal Crime?


Jury selection began today in what many are calling a landmark trial in the new field of Internet law. As the first case of its kind, U.S. v. Lori Drew could have a far-reaching impact on the future of anonymity on the web.

Lori Drew faces federal counts of Conspiracy and of Accessing Computers Without Authorization. Drew is charged with creating a false Internet identity on the social networking site MySpace, posing as a teenage boy. Prosecutors say she then used that false identity to befriend a depressed 13-year-old girl, a former friend of Drew’s daughter, and then began to harass the girl with hurtful messages. The girl hanged herself after allegedly receiving the messages, including one telling her that “the world would be a better place without you.”

Although Drew is not charged with the girl’s death, U.S. District Judge George Wu ruled last Friday that evidence of the girl’s suicide could be introduced by prosecutors. He stated that any prejudice would not be unfair, because the fact that the girl committed suicide is common knowledge, and jurors would be instructed that Drew is not charged with causing the suicide. Although the events took place in Missouri, the trial is being held in Los Angeles, where the MySpace servers are located.

The case is being closely watched, as Drew is being prosecuted under a law normally used to target computer hackers, and expanding the reach of the law could create criminal liability for many.

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act prohibits accessing protected computers without authorization. The prosecution seeks to expand the scope of this prohibition, to include violating the terms of service of a website that prohibits people from misrepresenting their identity through false accounts.

Using a false name to register with a website is commonplace. Anonymity is sought for a variety of reasons, most of them socially acceptable. Reasons range from fears of identity theft, protection from predators, avoiding spammers and scammers, and other justifiable concerns in this high-tech age. There are malicious reasons, too, such as concealing the identity of individuals committing crimes online.

The jurors being selected today will be asked to determine whether violating MySpace terms of service, by registering a false user profile, is a federal crime. They may well do so, especially now that they will hear that this particular false profile was allegedly used to harass a young girl to the point where she committed suicide.

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