An incident in which Missouri authorities decided not to file charges now has become a federal case - and a case that should get the attention of Internet users across the nation.
Lori Drew, a resident of Dardenne Prairie, Mo., a St. Louis suburb, was indicted Thursday by a federal grand jury in Los Angeles for her role in an online deception that has been cited as a factor in the suicide of a 13-year-old Missouri girl.
The indictment occurred in Los Angeles, because that is the home of Beverly Hills-based MySpace. Drew is accused of fraudulently creating a bogus MySpace account in the name of an imaginary boy named Josh Evans. It is alleged that Drew used the Josh account to obtain information about 13-year-old Megan Meier in violation of MySpace rules and "to inflict emotional distress" on Megan who hanged herself in her bedroom two years ago.
The MySpace site presented Josh as a 16-year-old boy who was interested in Megan. After several weeks of communications, "Josh" sent Megan a cruel message in an apparent effort to break off their online relationship. Among the statements, reportedly was one telling Megan that the world would be a better place without her. Within an hour of the message being received, Megan's mother found her daughter who had hanged herself in her closet. The girl died the next day.
It's hard to imagine why anyone, especially a supposedly responsible adult, would perpetrate such a hoax. Drew was a neighbor of the Meier family and her daughter reportedly was a former friend of Megan. One motivation suggested by an employee of Drew's who helped create the false profile was Drew's desire to find out what Megan was saying about her daughter.
It's also hard to imagine that even as she pursued this cruel, immature online joke, that Drew had any idea it might lead to tragic consequences. In many cases, it would not have, but that doesn't erase the fact that playing with people through anonymous online communication isn't a smart, ethical, or perhaps legal, thing to do.
The U.S. attorney prosecuting this case said it was the first time a federal statute on accessing protected computers has been used in connection with a social-networking case. Unfortunately, it may not be the last.