In Which NY Times Reporter Jenna Wortham Accidentally Reveals How She Violated Both The CFAA & The DMCA
from the all-in-one dept
Over the past few months and weeks there’s been much greater attention paid to both the CFAA and the anti-circumvention provisions of the DMCA, and how both are in need of serious reform. The attention to anti-circumvention was galvanized around the fact that unlocking your mobile phone became illegal again, after the Library of Congress allowed an exemption to expire, making many people realize that the anti-circumvention clause of the DMCA, also known as section 1201, meant that they often don’t really own the products they thought they owned. The attention to CFAA reform came in response to Aaron’s Swartz’s untimely death, and the light it shed on the parts of the CFAA that he was charged under. Of course, many of us have been fighting back against both laws for years, but the public attention on both has been key over the past few months.
One of the key issues that critics of both laws have pointed out, repeatedly, is how they criminalize things that most people don’t really think are bad or illegal. That is, they often criminalize someone (or at least make them open to huge civil awards) for the types of things plenty of people do everyday without thinking twice about it.
Given all that, it’s interesting to see a NY Times reporter, Jenna Wortham, more or less admit publicly to willfully breaking both laws in an article she wrote about the rising number of people, including herself, who use other people’s logins for various streaming content services. In Wortham’s case, she logs in to the HBO Go internet service via a login obtained from some guy she met at a restaurant.
LAST Sunday afternoon, some friends and I were hanging out in a local bar, talking about what we’d be doing that evening. It turned out that we all had the same plan: to watch the season premiere of “Game of Thrones.” But only one person in our group had a cable television subscription to HBO, where it is shown. The rest of us had a crafty workaround.
We were each going to use HBO Go, the network’s video Web site, to stream the show online — but not our own accounts. To gain access, one friend planned to use the login of the father of a childhood friend. Another would use his mother’s account. I had the information of a guy in New Jersey that I had once met in a Mexican restaurant.
That’s a violation of the anti-circumvention clause of the DMCA, as she is circumventing a technical protection measure that is designed to keep her from watching the show without paying. It’s a violation of the CFAA because it means that she is knowingly accessing a protected computer without authorization (or, at least, exceeding authorized access). There may be some questions about whether or not the data she obtained exceeds $5,000 in value, but it wouldn’t be that hard for a inspired US Attorney to come up with some way to count it as such. After all, they made that claim with Aaron Swartz and all he was downloading was academic papers that have little or no actual commercial value. Wortham is admitting to streaming some of the most popular (and expensive to produce) content out there.
No, no one thinks that anyone is likely to actually go after Wortham, but this story highlights why both of those laws are highly problematic and are in serious need of immediate reform. Just the fact that Wortham could find herself on the receiving end of lawsuits (both criminal and civil) over both of those laws (and considering her public admission to the key facts, she might have a difficult time pleading innocence) shows why those laws desperately need to be fixed. A quick look through Wortham’s writings this year suggest that she has not written about either of these issues. While it may not directly be considered her “beat,” the fact that this latest article leads to inadvertent admissions to breaking two laws — one of which can result in $150,000 in statutory damages and the other a felony charge and potential jail time — suggest that perhaps it should be something worth covering.
All that said, her article is actually pretty interesting, and worth reading. While it starts out talking about how people are sharing their accounts, it also notes that many of these services are really falling down on enabling easier community and sharing features among friends or the wider community of people who like the same content. I agree with all of that, though I don’t think people should face penalties for breaking these two incredibly obsolete laws to explore the topic.