Page last updated at 09:56 GMT, Wednesday, 1 July 2009 10:56 UK

Cyber bullying case sentence due

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley

MySpace page (file image)
MySpace users create their own profiles online

Sentencing will take place this week in the first federal cyber bullying case in the US which was brought to trial after a teenage girl took her own life.

Lori Drew, 50, pretended to be a boy on the MySpace website to befriend Megan Meier, who hanged herself after the virtual friendship ended.

A California judge postponed sentencing until 2 July to review testimony from two witnesses.

Ms Drew's landmark case concerning internet law made worldwide headlines.

Megan, a neighbour of Ms Drew's in St Louis, Missouri, and a former friend of her daughter, took her own life in October 2006.

The court was told that Megan killed herself after receiving several cruel messages from a fictitious 16-year-old boy named Josh Evans.

One post said the world would be better off without her.

Prosecutors said that Ms Drew and several others created the fake online page on MySpace, the social networking site, to find out what Megan was saying about her daughter after they had fallen out.

"Bad law"

Ms Drew was charged under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which is normally used against computer hackers. Prosecutors were unable to find any existing laws within the state of Missouri under which she could be tried.

They had alleged that Ms Drew had violated MySpace's terms of service by using false information to set up an account so she and others could "harass, abuse or harm" Megan Meier.

Lori Drew leaves an LA Court 18 May
Drew's trial was the first legal case in the US relating to cyber-bullying

The case was tried in California where MySpace is headquartered.

Last November a jury found Ms Drew guilty of three minor counts of violating MySpace's terms of use, but cleared her of the more serious charges that carried a maximum of 20 years in jail.

"There is a saying in the law that hard cases make bad law and that compelling facts lead courts and prosecutors to pursue cases that are ill advised and that's what we have seen right here with this case," said Andrew Grossman, who is a senior legal analyst with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative public policy research institute.

"What happened to Megan is truly a tragedy and no one wishes to downplay that. Ms Drew didn't do anything that was against the law. She did some things that were unkind, that were rude and not becoming of an adult but not against the law.

"The messages she sent were not criminal had she said them face to face or on the phone. She did not threaten harm or violence. The prosecutors have twisted the law and that should concern everyone who uses the internet," Mr Grossman told BBC News.

"Serious crime"

In the aftermath of the Megan Meier case a number of states and communities drew up cyber bullying laws.

This includes Megan's home state of Missouri where it is now a crime punishable by a fine of up to $500 (£300) or 90 days in jail, to harass someone over the internet.

Efforts are also underway to pass a federal law. California Congresswoman Linda Sanchez is behind the Megan Meier Cyber bullying Prevention Act which has been referred to a judiciary committee for legal review.

children at computers
A recent study said over 40% of children have been bullied online

This law aims to make it a crime punishable by a fine or up to two years of prison to communicate online with "the intent to coerce, intimidate, harass, or cause substantial emotional distress to a person."

"We need to make new laws in response to these new crimes. Sexting and textual harassment are only a couple of new tactics used by bullies who don't think they'll get caught because there are no bystanders in cyberspace," said Ms Sanchez in an email to the BBC.

"What they need to know is that cyber bullying is a serious crime, and is no less harmful than in-person threats, stalking, and harassment.

"If federal law recognises this new form of bullying, police and prosecutors will be better equipped and educated to deal with this problem. Prosecutors, more importantly, will then have the ability to punish this behaviour in court," said Ms Sanchez.

Some legal experts worry about a law that specifically targets online behaviour.

"These types of matters are better decided in sober moments where they are not driven by a single set of facts," said Professor John Palfrey of the Berkman Centre for Internet & Society at Harvard University.

"One of the big questions we have to grapple with is whether or not bullying done online makes us feel any differently than bullying in the old fashioned way. If it doesn't then its not clear we need a new law in this context.

"Generally speaking it's a bad idea to make cyber specific laws. We don't need a cyber law for stealing, we have a law for theft. We don't need a cyber law for fraud, we have basic laws for that. And the question now should be do we want to outlaw bullying and not just cyber bullying?" questioned Professor Palfrey.

"Devastating"

The US National Crime Prevention Council in a report last year found that 43% of teens are exposed to cyber bullying in one form or another yet only one in 10 kids told their parents.

"Cyber bullying can have such a devastating effect on our young people from depression to falling grades and low self esteem. This case shows however that cyber bullying is not something that just young people commit but we as adults can also be at fault," said the council's Michelle Boykin.

"The issue of how you deal with cyber bullying from a legislative perspective is a tough one and we are glad people are looking at the issue seriously."

Catherine 'cati' Grant
Cati said she was a victim of cyber-bullying for nearly three years

Cyber bullying was just one of the topics covered by the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, a group of 29 internet businesses, non-profit organisations, academics and technology companies.

The body was set up by the Attorneys General and chaired by Professor Palfrey.

He told the BBC he believed this is an "extremely important case" and that "one of the challenges with cyber bullying is that there has been a sharp increase over the years. The big question on the data is whether there is actually an increase of bullying across the board.

"The difference with cyber bullying over regular bullying is that its recorded and it's not just someone saying something on the playground."

Support website

15 year old Catherine 'Cati' Grant was a victim of cyber bullying from the age of twelve. The cause she said was a misunderstanding with a friend who accused Cati of stealing something.

"She sent me mean messages on MySpace and blamed me for things I didn't do. After a while I got really sad and worried about what people thought of me."

In the end Cati said the bullying stopped when the other girl went to the school principal. He told her to stay away from Cati or "suffer the consequences."

That experience, coupled with the death of Megan Meier, prompted Cati to take action.

She set up a website for teens to get help, support and advice and is planning a tour across America to raise awareness about internet safety and join one million teens together against cyber bullying.

"Megan's death was one of the reasons I set up my website. It was just so shocking and upsetting and I want to do what I can to prevent cyber bullying in general and help teenagers who feel they have no where to turn to," Ms Grant told BBC News.



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