Yes, The DOJ Thinks It's A Crime When A 12 Year Old Reads The NY Times
from the reform-the-cfaa-now dept
We’ve been talking a lot lately about the need for serious reform of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), which was initially supposed to be a law about malicious hacking, but has been used repeatedly by the DOJ and others to attack something so simple as a minor terms of service violation as a potential felony. While certain courts have rejected the DOJ’s interpretation, that has not stopped the DOJ from claiming that its interpretation can be applied in other circuits. Even more bizarre is that, rather than fixing the law, Congress’s most recent actions have suggested an interest in expanding the law even further, increasing the punishment levels for those the DOJ decides to go after.
The EFF has pointed out just how ridiculous it is to argue that violating a terms of service is a potential felony, noting how that even makes children who read online news sites potential felons for violating terms of service. This is, in part, due to another bad law that we’ve spoken about, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA. The issue here is that online sites have stricter rules if they’re seen as targeting children under the age of 13. To avoid this potential liability, many websites simply inserted a clause into their terms of service saying that you can only read the site if you’re over 13 (some sites say 18 and others say between 13 and 18 need a parent’s approval). While this is somewhat lazy lawyering on the part of those sites (to ban outright), those are their terms of service. And violating such terms violates the CFAA under the DOJ’s interpretation.
The EFF notes that such age exclusion provisions are pretty common, and sites like the NY Times and NBC News bar children under 13 entirely.
This means that inquisitive 12-year-olds who visit NBCNews.com to learn about current events would be, by default, misrepresenting their ages. Again, this could be criminal under the DOJ’s interpretation of the CFAA.
We’d like to say that we’re being facetious, but, unfortunately, the Justice Department has already demonstrated its willingness to pursue CFAA to absurd extremes. Luckily, the Ninth Circuit rejected the government’s arguments, concluding that, under such an ruling, millions of unsuspecting citizens would suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of the law. As Judge Alex Kozinski so aptly wrote: “Under the government’s proposed interpretation of the CFAA…describing yourself as ‘tall, dark and handsome,’ when you’re actually short and homely, will earn you a handsome orange jumpsuit.”
And it’s no excuse to say that the vast majority of these cases will never be prosecuted. As the Ninth Circuit explained, “Ubiquitous, seldom-prosecuted crimes invite arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.” Instead of pursuing only suspects of actual crimes, it opens the door for prosecutors to go after people because the government doesn’t like them.
Unfortunately, there’s no sign the Justice Department has given up on this interpretation outside the Ninth and Fourth Circuits, which is why the Professor Tim Wu in the New Yorker recently called the CFAA “the most outrageous criminal law you’ve never heard of.”
Then the Atlantic Wire helpfully jumped in and highlighted many other publications and their online terms of service, showing that young readers of many of today’s most popular news sites are potentially breaking the law every time they do so under the DOJ’s clearly stated position on the CFAA.
The EFF followed it up by pointing out that, until just recently, if you were a 17-year-old girl (or younger!) reading the magazine Seventeen online, you were almost certainly breaking the law under the DOJ’s interpretation of the CFAA, since its terms restricted visitors to those 18 and older.
Rather than “trusting” the DOJ not to abuse this kind of thing, wouldn’t we all be better off fixing it?