On the Internet, Everyone is a Criminal

On the Internet, Everyone is a Criminal September 19, 2011

Orin Kerr, a leading con law expert with a specialty in cyber law, has an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal warning about a new bill that could potentially turn 80% of internet users into felons.

The little-known law at issue is called the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. It was enacted in 1986 to punish computer hacking. But Congress has broadened the law every few years, and today it extends far beyond hacking. The law now criminalizes computer use that “exceeds authorized access” to any computer. Today that violation is a misdemeanor, but the Senate Judiciary Committee is set to meet this morning to vote on making it a felony.

That is so broad as to be virtually limitless, as Kerr points out:

The problem is that a lot of routine computer use can exceed “authorized access.” Courts are still struggling to interpret this language. But the Justice Department believes that it applies incredibly broadly to include “terms of use” violations and breaches of workplace computer-use policies.

Breaching an agreement or ignoring your boss might be bad. But should it be a federal crime just because it involves a computer? If interpreted this way, the law gives computer owners the power to criminalize any computer use they don’t like. Imagine the Democratic Party setting up a public website and announcing that no Republicans can visit. Every Republican who checked out the site could be a criminal for exceeding authorized access.

If that sounds far-fetched, consider a few recent cases. In 2009, the Justice Department prosecuted a woman for violating the “terms of service” of the social networking site MySpace.com. The woman had been part of a group that set up a MySpace profile using a fake picture. The feds charged her with conspiracy to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Prosecutors say the woman exceeded authorized access because MySpace required all profile information to be truthful. But people routinely misstate the truth in online profiles, about everything from their age to their name. What happens when each instance is a felony?

Not only should they not be turning this into a felony, they should be doing away with that provision of the law and replacing it with something far more specific to what ought to be prosecuted.


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