Did Stephen Colbert And President Bill Clinton Violate The CFAA?

from the another-day,-another-example dept

Last night, former President Bill Clinton joined Stephen Colbert on his TV show, The Colbert Report. As many people have noted, at the very end of the program, Colbert told Clinton that he had taken the liberty of signing him up for a Twitter account, since Clinton does not currently use Twitter (he joked that he was afraid no one would reply to his tweets). The Twitter account is @PrezBillyJeff, and Colbert sent Clinton’s first tweet live while on the air. If you’re in the US or the one or two other places that Hulu actually works, you can see the exchange below (if you’re elsewhere, blame Viacom for being stupid):

Of course, as we’ve been discussing this week, the CFAA is an awful bill concerning hacking, and needs to be reformed. A big part of the problem is that it appears to criminalize what seems like every day behavior, and the DOJ has interpreted the CFAA broadly. While not all courts agree, the DOJ has argued that merely disobeying a website’s terms of service means that you’ve violated the CFAA by accessing content either without authorization or by exceeding authorization.

Let’s jump over to Twitter’s terms of service. There, they clearly forbid impersonation:

Impersonation: You may not impersonate others through the Twitter service in a manner that does or is intended to mislead, confuse, or deceive others

Now, you could argue that Colbert registering an account for Clinton without his permission does not reach that level, but are you confident that someone else doing the same thing less publicly wouldn’t run into problems if their tweets pissed someone off? An account that many people believe actually belongs to Bill Clinton would be highly valuable. Indeed, just overnight the account has racked up tens of thousands of followers. In the meantime, it’s not even entirely clear who actually controls the account. Colbert registered it and tweeted from it. Are any future tweets coming from Colbert or Clinton or someone else? It’s not difficult to make an argument that the account is intended to confuse others. Furthermore, if Colbert is transferring the account over to Clinton, it means that Clinton never actually agreed to the terms of service in the first place. Would that mean he is then abusing the use of the service?

While they appear to now have been deleted, according to the Washington Post, after the inaugural post done live on the air, there were a series of other tweets in which it was not clear if it was Clinton or Colbert tweeting. One had “Clinton” refer to “Colbert” as his new “BFF” and the tweets used the hashtag “#notColbertpretendingtobeme.” At the very least, there is clear confusion, and a regular person might assume that this is Bill Clinton tweeting. If it’s actually Colbert, it could be seen as a CFAA violation.

Yes, this is a stretch — no doubt about it. But that’s part of the problem with the CFAA. It is so broadly worded that simple activities like these can be twisted into a violation should someone in power wish to do so.

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Comments on “Did Stephen Colbert And President Bill Clinton Violate The CFAA?”

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Anonymous Coward says:

So desperate. It’s a parody account. It’s not a federal crime. The FUD is strong with you, Mike.

So when are you going to address my points about your similar FUD post yesterday when you claimed that person was violating the DMCA and the CFAA by using somebody else’s password (with that person’s permission) to watch HBO Go? Are you not capable of defending what you right? You wouldn’t misstate the law just to spread FUD, would you?

No, not Mike. He’s as honest as a three dollar bill.

Yes, this is a stretch — no doubt about it.

I’m glad we agree. What’s the point of this mindless, idiotic FUD? Seriously. WTF is wrong with you? Can you just not calm down and take a step back? Do you really think the world is so terrible that you must make post after post spreading only idiotic FUD? Seriously, dude. WTF?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Thanks. Yeah, with 10 seconds of looking I found a case that said using someone else’s password is not a DMCA violation: http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20130406/22004022615/which-ny-times-reporter-jenna-wortham-accidentally-reveals-how-she-violated-both-cfaa-dmca.shtml#c369 I found a couple more cases that say the same thing, and none that say the opposite. I could find no appellate court that addressed the issue. Just trial courts.

As far as the CFAA claim is concerned, Mike didn’t identify which part of the Act he is looking at. He mentioned the $5,000 threshold, and then had some FUD about how since Swartz met that threshold then this girl using someone else’s password to watch GoT could be spun that way too. Of course, Swartz downloaded millions of articles that cost millions of dollars to produce, collate, host, etc., and the school spent more than that trying to stop him. So the analogy is completely idiotic…

But, hey, President Clinton violated the CFAA!!!! OMG, the law is so dumb!!!! President Clinton breaks the law, so we should too!!!! Yeah!!!


Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Several reasons. First among them is human stupidity. There is also Hollywood brainwashing. Hollywood is run by those with definite agendas. Want to brainwash people into accepting your point of view? Do it through entertainment. Comedy works best. Make things like drugs and gay marriage look lighthearted and no big deal. Continual exposure to ideas through movies, TV, and music will make those ideas more acceptable.
Is it any coincidence that the states with the most liberal marijuana laws also seem to have the toughest gun laws? Could there be a move afoot to deprive people of guns and give ’em dope? What could be better to the government than a drug-addled (and disarmed) populace?

silverscarcat says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

Considering over 1/2 of all Americans, including most of the politicians, have done pot or other drugs in their lives…

Even Obama and Clinton did pot when they were younger. And George W. Bush did other drugs when he was younger.

Just pointing it out.

“What could be better to the government than a drug-addled (and disarmed) populace?”

A populace that doesn’t care what the government does because Survivor is on?

Niall (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

I take it you are redefining ‘communist’ according to Faux News and Conservapedia as ‘someone I don’t like who is to the right of Genghis Khan but still left of me’?

Hollywood may have a somewhat so-called ‘liberal’ bias in their film-making, but they are nowhere close to communist. Plus, their management system is far too capitalist-abusive to be even socialist, let alone communist. Where is the ‘common good’ of how they treat their artists or the public?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

And a subscription to HBO Go costs how much? Not $5K.

Swartz downloaded millions of articles that are sold for what, $20 – $40 each? Plus, the school spent thousands trying to stop him from continuing his unauthorized access.

It’s just not comparable.

P.S. I threw the part in about the costs because Mike pretends like JSTOR has nothing of value and spends nothing to create their complex, valuable, and expensive database that some pay tens of thousands of dollars a year to access because it’s so valuable.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

they are sold for 20-40$… this doesn’t mean they are worth that. It’s information, 1s and 0s, copiable ad infinitum with basically no cost to the publisher. The info’s real worth is 0$.
Heck, they could price the thing at trillions of dollars if they want, that doesn;t make it worth trillions. If that;s the reaosn you think it was okay to go after Swartz… that’s dumb.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

they are sold for 20-40$… this doesn’t mean they are worth that. It’s information, 1s and 0s, copiable ad infinitum with basically no cost to the publisher. The info’s real worth is 0$.

That’s what Mike wants to believe as well, but that’s not value is calculated under the CFAA–which is all that matters here.

Rikuo (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

“Plus, the school spent thousands trying to stop him from continuing his unauthorized access.”

Really? And where, other than your ass, did you pull this from? Swartz was in that cupboard for just a short while and from what I’ve heard, was only stopped via IP and MAC address blocking. He was arrested after only a short while. So how on earth could they have spent thousands of dollars blocking his intrusion? How could anyone, unless your IT security personnel are the best in the world who demand thousands per hour?

Anonymous Coward says:

the only way this would make for a prosecution would be if Clinton became an ordinary person. no law enforcement agency or government is interested in taking a famous person to court, regardless of where the fame came from, let alone winning a case against them. they are only interested in people who cant defend themselves for whatever reason and can expect to get a win. the exceptions are people like Dotcom. in these cases there are vendettas being carried out on behalf of third parties who dont have the guts to do anything themselves and can also greatly influence the way a judge will rule, as in TPB spectrial!!

Anonymous Coward says:


The “point of this mindless, idiotic FUD” is that everyone agrees with you that this shouldn’t be a violation of any law. But if Stephen Colbert was a strong public supporter of open access, like Aaron Swartz, and the feds wanted him to shut up, they might make his life a living hell for a few months/years trying to get him to ‘fess up to a felony and take a fall and go to jail for a while under this law by using the broad wording to their advantage. He technically violated their terms of service by setting up an account for someone other than himself. Under the law, terms and service violations violate the CFAA. If a site’s terms of service says “BBy using this service, you agree to eat 12 raw eggs everyday” and then you don;t eat 12 raw eggs a day, you are violating the CFAA. They can use this law to go after people they don’t like for doing things that shouldn’t be illegal. That person needs to endure the stress and expense of fighting or agree to a plea bargain that makes them a criminal for life and puts them in jail.

If everyone is doing things that the law deems criminal, the government has the power to go after ANYONE they choose to coerce and bully them. The fact that they won’t use the law against everyone who breaks it doesn’t make it okay; it’s part of the problem. Enforcemenent of the law should be fair, equal, and transparent (ie. when you break the law, you should know that what you’re doing is wrong). Of course the law wasn’t intended to go after the HBO GO password borrower, or Stephen Colbert, but the fact that it COULD be used to coerce them into doing whatever the govt wants is a huge problem.

What is hard to udnerstand about that? Aaron Swartz could have been any of us.

Anonymous Coward says:


As long as you’re suggesting that a former President of the United States has violated a criminal law, could you be so kind as to identify exactly which part of the CFAA you think he violated?

That way, we can run through the elements and do the actual analysis. I mean, you wouldn’t suggest that President Clinton committed a crime without being able to walk us through it, right? You’re not THAT desperate, are you?


P.S. It’s so dumb it fucking hurts. Seriously, dude. This is most desperate thing I’ve seen in a long time, suggesting that President Clinton committed a criminal act. It’s a new low for you, which is incredible. Seriously.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

First up, did you read the article?
Violating ToS could be considered a CFAA violation.
1. Colbert set up an account in Bill Clinton’s name.
2. He tweeted something in Bill Clinton’s name.

I.E. Colbert violated Twitter’s ToS.

Impersonation: You may not impersonate others through the Twitter service in a manner that does or is intended to mislead, confuse, or deceive others

With laws that vague that it makes just about everyone guilty, doesn’t that mean the law should be scrapped? I guess you would want to live in a society were selective laws are written and are judged on an ad-hoc basis.

Machin Shin (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“suggesting that President Clinton committed a criminal act. It’s a new low for you, which is incredible.”

Suggesting President Clinton HASN’T committed a criminal act requires such an amazing level of hiding under a rock that I’m beginning to wonder if you people haven’t discovered some form of dimension hopping. Take a look at the USA criminal code, then find me a person who has not broken some law.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

“‘ve committed no felonies today. Or yesterday. Or the day before.”

That you know of.
What about all the secret laws, have you violated any of those? If not, how do you know this – because you probably lack legal access to said secret law verbiage and therefore you are guilty of obtaining classified information illegally – sent him to gitmo.

JP Jones (profile) says:

AC, you may want to do some more homework:

It is important to note that so far none of these individuals have been convicted of criminal charges under the CFAA, well, except Brekka, who was found guilty by jury but later overturned. These cases are likely to end up at SCOTUS level since two districts have found different interpretations of the CFAA.

The key point is that they were successfully charged under the CFAA. The result is irrelevant; the cases were still heard. District judges don’t hear cases without merit; if it is obvious that a charge will be dismissed it’s never brought to court, let alone given a guilty verdict.

When it’s not clear whether or not a particular action is a violation of a law that is, by definition, vague. I seem to remember an issue or two with vague laws.

The ubiquitous “on a computer system”-style laws may have worked back in the 90s before computers were in virtually every household in the U.S. It’s time to take a close look at those laws with a bit more technical knowledge and understanding, something that was clearly lacking when these laws were written.

Anonymous Coward says:

so CFAA and twitter “terms of service” are LAW Masnick..

wow you are desperate..

” While not all courts agree, the DOJ has argued that merely disobeying a website’s terms of service means that you’ve violated the CFAA by accessing content either without authorization or by exceeding authorization. “

what ‘content’ was accessed by someone writing a tweet ???

Your a moron Mansick…

Niall (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Becausee the DOJ can still utterly ruin your life with piled-on ‘fake’ charges and escalating civil penalties into grand felonies. I’m sure most people would rather not have to go to court and would rather not be charged with ‘felony interference with a government donor’s business failure model’ because they changed a lightbulb for themselves.

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