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Abuse of the CFAA: The Problem of Prosecutorial Indiscretion

With renewed interest in the failings of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the role of prosecutorial discretion in its application in light of the tragic outcome in the Aaron Swartz case, I went back to what I wrote about the law in 2009.

Back then, the victim of both the poorly-drafted amendments to CFAA that expanded its scope from government to private computer networks and the politically-motivated zeal of federal prosecutors reaching for something—anything—with which to punish otherwise legal but disfavored behavior was trained on Lori Drew, a far less sympathetic defendant.

But the dangers lurking in the CFAA were just as visible in 2009 as they are today.  Those who have recently picked up the banner calling for reform of the law might ask themselves where they were back then, and why the ultimately unsuccessful Drew prosecution didn’t raise their hackles at the time.

The law was just as bad in 2009, and just as dangerously twisted by the government.  Indeed, the Drew case, as I wrote at the time, gave all the notice anyone needed of what was to come later.

Here’s the section of The Laws of Disruption from 2009 discussing CFAA:

What did Lori Drew do?

The late-forties suburban St. Louis mother was apparently unhappy about the “mean” behavior of Megan Meier, a thirteen-year-old former friend of Drew’s daughter Sarah. The Drews, along with Ashley Grills, the eighteen-year-old employee of Lori Drew’s home business, hatched a plan. They created a fake MySpace profile for a bare-chested sixteen-year-old boy named “Josh,” who would befriend Megan and encourage her to gossip about other girls. Then they would take printouts to Megan’s mother to show her what the girl was up to.

Not only was the idea stupid, it wasn’t even original—Sarah and Megan, back when they were friends, had done the same thing, creating a profile for a boy who didn’t exist as a way to talk to other boys. This time, however, the plan went awry. Megan became deeply infatuated with Josh. She pressed for his phone number. She wanted to meet him in person. The women behind his account looked for a way out.

According to Grills, “We decided to be mean to her so she would leave him alone . . . and we could get rid of the page.” After deliberating on the easiest way to end an ill-conceived hoax that was going very wrong, Grills sent an instant message to Meier: “The world would be a better place without you.”

The consequences were tragic. Meier, who was being treated for depression, took the suggestion all too literally. After an argument with her parents, who had closely monitored the relationship with Josh from the beginning, Meier went to her room and hanged herself.

Media accounts of the teen’s suicide and the subsequent revelation of who was behind “Josh” created a froth of outrage and hand-wringing. Commentators invented and then proclaimed an epidemic of “cyberbullying.”

When it became clear that the mother of one of Meier’s former friends was involved, Drew herself was subjected to death threats and vandalism. A fake MySpace page for her husband was created. On cable news and the blogosphere, Drew was instantly convicted and sentenced to hell. (“Call me vindictive,” a typical blog entry read, “but i hope that someone kills the woman who is responsible.”)

In the midst of the media storm, state attorneys in Missouri announced there would be no prosecution of Drew for the simple reason that no criminal law had been broken. Federal prosecutors weren’t so sure. They found a 1986 law, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, that set stiff penalties for breaking into and damaging computers.

Drew was charged under the novel theory that since the MySpace terms of service agreement prohibits posting false information in one’s profile, the creation of Josh violated Drew’s contract. Hence, she “accessed” MySpace computers without “authorization.” The creation of Josh, in other words, was a kind of hacking. The victim was not Meier (who with her parents’ permission had also violated the TOS, which requires users to be at least fourteen years old). The victim was MySpace.

Although the jury ultimately refused to convict Drew on the felony charge, they did convict her of the lesser crime of unauthorized access. Valentina Kunasz, the jury’s foreperson, made no apologies for the conviction. “It was so very childish; so very pathetic,” she told reporters after the trial. “She could have done quite a few things to stop it, and she chose not to. And I think she got kind of a rise out of doing this to another person and that bothers me, it really irks me.” Drew faces up to three years in prison and $300,000 in fines.

Legal scholars were generally in agreement that the prosecution was deeply flawed and will very likely be set aside or reversed on appeal. (N.B.  Later, it was.) First, there were gaping holes in the government’s case. For one thing, it was Grills, and not Drew, who set up the Josh account and therefore agreed to the TOS (Grills, testifying for the prosecution in exchange for immunity, admitted she never read the TOS). Drew herself was only occasionally involved in the hoax.

By a weird twist of irony, one of the few times she communicated with Meier it turned out she was talking to Meier’s mother, who told Josh he ought to be looking for friends his own age. The fateful message was sent by Grills without Drew’s knowledge, and wasn’t even sent through MySpace.

As a matter of public policy, the prosecution is even more disturbing. Even assuming Drew was bound by the TOS, these contracts are notoriously long and intentionally unreadable. Most of us, even lawyers, don’t read them.

Yet following the logic of the Drew prosecution, anyone who misrepresents some of their personal details on an online dating service has committed a federal crime. Anyone who gives a nonworking telephone number when signing up for a Web site has committed a federal crime.

Indeed, after the verdict, one social network researcher was pained to admit, “We’ve been telling our kids to lie about ID information for a long time now.”

The computer fraud law began as a protection against hackers targeting government computers. The law has never before been used in connection with the violation, willful or otherwise, of private terms of service. There’s no reason to believe Congress intended to criminalize cyberbullying in 1986 or any other time.

Supporters of the conviction argue that the real problem here was a hole in the law—the lack of a statute outlawing whatever it was Lori Drew had done.  But the decision of lawmakers not to criminalize a behavior is no reason to correct the problem in a way that undermines the very idea of law.

People are often cruel to each other. Other children, adults, and even parents can and do humiliate children in the real world. No laws, in all but extreme cases, are being broken.

It’s difficult to see how this case differs in any respect other than the use of a computer and the tragic outcome.

If the conviction stands, it effectively gives every federal prosecutor a blank check to charge anyone they want with criminal behavior, subject only to their discretion of whether and when to use that power.

Some commentators, pleased with the result if not the process, argued that there was no cause for alarm. Prosecutors, they said, will only use this power in extreme cases.

The Drew prosecution suggests precisely the opposite. For elected prosecutors in particular, the real temptation is to exercise discretion not when the law would otherwise let a heinous crime slip through the cracks but when passions are high and the facts (at least the version presented by the media) are the most lurid—when, in other words, an angry mob demands it.