Commentary

EFF: Violating Terms Of Service Isn't Computer Fraud

Facebook might think sharing users' data is a great idea, but that doesn't mean it wants users sharing that data on their own. The company's terms of service specifically ban the use of "automatic means" to collect their contacts, photos, friends' names and other data stored on the site. Rather, people who want to copy such data to another computer or service must do so manually or else risk Facebook's wrath for violating its terms of service.

Now, one company that aimed to help users easily transfer their data, Power.com, is embroiled in litigation with Facebook. Power aggregates data from social networking sites, enabling people with accounts through a variety of services -- including Orkut, MySpace, LinkedIn and Twitter -- to access all of their information from one portal. To accomplish this, Power asks users to provide log-in information for their social networking sites and then imports their information.

Facebook, no fan of the service, filed suit against Power over the practice. Among other arguments, Facebook alleged that Power is violating a computer fraud statute because it is breaking Facebook's terms of service by scraping users' data.

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Today, the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Power's behalf. The EFF rightly points out that the problem with accepting Facebook's argument is doing so would allow a private company to transform millions of Web users into criminals simply by issuing terms of service that people ignore.

In fact, one judge has already rejected that argument in another context -- the MySpace suicide case. In that instance, the government prosecuted Missouri resident Lori Drew for computer fraud for allegedly violating MySpace's terms of service by helping to create a fake account that was used to send 13-year-old Megan Meier hurtful messages. (Drew herself didn't send the messages). Megan committed suicide, after which the feds brought charges against Drew.

A jury found Drew guilty, but the judge later threw out the conviction on the ground that violating a site's terms of service isn't computer fraud.

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