“On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Dog”

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on September 15, 2011

But if you say that you are, you just might go to jail:

Imagine that President Obama could order the arrest of anyone who broke a promise on the Internet. So you could be jailed for lying about your age or weight on an Internet dating site. Or you could be sent to federal prison if your boss told you to work but you used the company’s computer to check sports scores online. Imagine that Eric Holder’s Justice Department urged Congress to raise penalties for violations, making them felonies allowing three years in jail for each broken promise. Fanciful, right?

Think again. Congress is now poised to grant the Obama administration’s wishes in the name of “cybersecurity.”

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.

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.

[. . .]

Remarkably, the law doesn’t even require devices to be connected to the Internet. Since 2008, it applies to pretty much everything with a microchip. So if you’re visiting a friend and you use his coffeemaker without permission, watch out: You may have committed a federal crime.

I hear that there are people attacking Congress for not passing enough legislation these days. If anything, the criticism ought to be that Congress spends too much time passing bills, and not enough time thinking about the real world implications of the legislation it considers.

Previous post:

Next post: