Hearst Corp. changed the online terms of service for publications like Seventeen, CosmoGirl and the Houston Chronicle this week, after the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation pointed out that the prior terms of service potentially transformed teenage readers into criminals.
Hearst's new terms of services no longer have that age restriction. Hearst wasn't the only company called out by the EFF. Other publications to say they restrict minors include the U-T San Diego and the Miami Herald, the EFF reported.
But the existence of that clause means that federal authorities could seek to indict teens simply for reading the publications. Of course, the odds that a federal prosecutor would attempt to do so are remote. And the odds of obtaining a conviction hover at around zero -- especially given that teens have a First Amendment right to access news and information.
But the problem with the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is that the law is so sweeping, it allows for just this sort of prosecution. That's because the law makes it a crime for users to exceed their “authorized access” to a site.
True, some courts, including the influential 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, have tried to limit the law's reach by stating that violating a private company's terms of service doesn't in itself constitute computer fraud. But as long as the computer fraud law is on the books, prosecutors can continue to attempt to bring questionable computer fraud cases. That's one of the reasons the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is considered the worst law in technology.