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Is it against the law to violate a Web site's terms of service?

        Tech | Internet Basics

Terms of Service: Lori Drew and Unauthorized Access
Decisions handed down in the infamous Lori Drew case have led some people to worry about what it now means to violate a Web site's Terms of Service.
Decisions handed down in the infamous Lori Drew case have led some people to worry about what it now means to violate a Web site's Terms of Service.
AP Photo/Nick Ut

When people use the Internet in a typical manner -- reading and sending e-mails, checking the news, watching some videos -- they don't put too much thought into the act. But did you ever think using the Internet could turn you into a felon?

­The big story that has many users asking this question involves the social networking Web site MySpace. Although the site has developed a bad reputation for being an easy place for stalkers and predators to create profiles and easily communicate with other members, one event in 2006 caused a storm of outrage across the Internet. When Lori Drew, a 49-year-old parent from Missouri, grew concerned after a 13-year-old girl from her neighborhood, Megan Meier, stopped being friends with Drew's daughter, she used unconventional methods to address the situation. Drew, her daughter and an 18-year-old employee of Drew's created a fake profile on MySpace under the name "Josh Evans." With the phony personality, the three befriended Megan over the Web site, only to bully her with insulting messages. Distraught by the attacks, Megan committed suicide by hanging herself in her closet. The Drew family had been aware that Megan was taking medication for depression.

Because the MySpace servers are located in Los Angeles, a California attorney, Thomas O'Brian, stepped in to charge Drew with violating criminal law. O'Brian argued that by using a phony profile, Drew was violating MySpace's Terms of Service, which state that people must offer "truthful and accurate" information about themselves. Within this violation, Drew was also in violation of "unauthorized access" to MySpace's services, which breaks federal law laid out in the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Being guilty of this kind of "unauthorized access" is simply a misdemeanor. But if the act is "in furtherance" of another kind of illegal act, the charge could suddenly turn into a felony. Drew escaped conviction of a felony, but in November 2008, she was convicted on three misdemeanor counts of computer hacking [source: Zetter]. So what does this mean for the everyday user?


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