If Congress Won't Fix The CFAA, President Obama Should Order The DOJ To Stand Down
from the get-with-the-program dept
Tim Wu has an excellent article in the New Yorker, talking about the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), and specifically about how it was used against Aaron Swartz, declaring it the worst law in technology. Much of it covers similar ground to what we’ve covered before, but it also makes some really good points towards the end about how the Obama administration really needs to pull back on its reliance on the law in so many cases. First, he notes that simply relying on “prosecutorial discretion” is not enough, since we’ve seen that doesn’t work:
The broadest provision, 18 U.S.C. §1030(a)(2)(c), makes it a crime to “exceed authorized access, and thereby obtain… information from any protected computer.” To the Justice Department, “exceeding authorized access” includes violating terms of service, and “any protected computer” includes just about any Web site or computer. The resulting breadth of criminality is staggering. As Professor Kerr writes, it “potentially regulates every use of every computer in the United States and even many millions of computers abroad.” You don’t have to be a raving libertarian to think that might be a problem. Dating sites, to borrow an example from Judge Alex Kozinski, usually mandate that you tell the truth, making lying about your age and weight technically a crime. Or consider employer restrictions on computers that ban personal usage, like checking ESPN or online shopping. The Justice Department’s interpretation makes the American desk-worker a felon.
When judges or academics say that it is wrong to interpret a law in such a way that everyone is a felon, the Justice Department has usually replied by saying, roughly, that federal prosecutors don’t bother with minor cases—they only go after the really bad guys. That has always been a lame excuse—repulsive to anyone who takes seriously the idea of a “a government of laws, not men.” After Aaron Swartz’s suicide, the era of trusting prosecutors with unlimited power in this area should officially be over.
He notes (as we have) that it doesn’t look like Congress is really taking the matter that seriously yet. But he also notes that we don’t have to wait for Congress. The DOJ should make it a stated policy not to interpret the law in such a ridiculous manner.
There is a much more immediate and effective remedy: the Justice Department should announce a change in its criminal-enforcement policy. It should no longer consider terms-of-service violations to be criminal. It can join more than a dozen federal judges and scholars, like Kerr, who adopt a reasonable and more limited interpretation. The Obama Administration’s policy will have no effect on civil litigation, so firms like Oracle will retain their civil remedies. President Obama’s DREAM Act enforcement policy, under which the Administration does not deport certain illegal immigrants despite Congress’s inability to make the act a law, should be the model. Where Congress is unlikely to solve a problem, the Administration should take care of business itself.
All the Administration needs to do is to rely on the ancient common-law principle called the “rule of lenity.” This states that ambiguous criminal laws should be construed in favor of a defendant. As the Supreme Court puts it, “When choice has to be made between two readings of what conduct Congress has made a crime, it is appropriate, before we choose the harsher alternative, to require that Congress should have spoken in language that is clear and definite.” So far, at least thirteen federal judges have rejected the Justice Department’s interpretation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. If that’s not a sign that the law is unclear and should be interpreted with lenity, I don’t know what is.
Failing that — and we’ve rarely seen a law enforcement agency take a weapon out of its own arsenal by choice — Wu suggests that it’s President Obama’s responsibility to speak up and tell the DOJ to change its policies. He notes, “with just one speech, the President can set things right.”