Commentary

Proposed Computer Fraud Law Could Make Bad Rule Worse

It's hard to imagine, but the worst law in technology could soon become even, well, worse, thanks to a group of GOP lawmakers who are reportedly trying to revive an amendment first proposed in 2011.

The current Computer Fraud and Abuse Law, which dates to 1984, makes it a crime for people to exceed their authorized access to a computer. That law is already under attack from some lawmakers, who say that the concept of “authorized access” is so broad that the law could transform nearly everyone who goes online into a criminal.

Already, people have been prosecuted on the theory that they exceeded authorized access by violating the terms of service of private companies -- such as by lying when creating a MySpace account. In the most famous recent case, open information activist Aaron Swartz -- who committed suicide earlier this year -- was about to face trial for allegedly violating the computer fraud law by using the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's server in order to download  academic papers.

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Judges have sided with defendants in some prior prosecutions based on violating terms of service, but reformers say that the law should state that disregarding a private organization's terms of use isn't a federal crime.

Unfortunately, this proposal now being floated would do the exact opposite. The bill would make it even easier to prosecute people for exceeding their “authorized access” to a computer, and also would increase the penalties, according to an analysis by the Center for Democracy & Technology.

Hopefully, the proposal goes nowhere fast. Meanwhile, a separate bill unveiled recently by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) deserves serious consideration. Their proposal would clarify once and for all that people who violate private organization's terms of use don't commit computer fraud.

2 comments about "Proposed Computer Fraud Law Could Make Bad Rule Worse".
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  1. Chuck Lantz from 2007ac.com, 2017ac.com network, March 29, 2013 at 6:33 p.m.

    I don't see what the problem is. We all read every word of every terms of service agreement we encounter online, and refer back to it constantly, right?

  2. Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance, April 2, 2013 at 4:27 a.m.

    @Chuck exactly. I wish there were a few standard TOS agreements that every site chose from, instead of the current ludicrous situation where every site has to reinvent their own TOS and the legal system pretends that visitors read them.

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