The Inquirer-Home

EFF wants a rewrite of US e-crime laws

First is the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act
Tue Feb 05 2013, 14:40
A man's hands sticking through prison bars

INTERNET ACTIVIST GROUP the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) wants the US to reconsider the severity of its computer crime laws and tear them up and start over.

Laws are too strong and too open to interpretation, according to the EFF. In response, the EFF is calling for legislators to lessen the penalties specified by the US Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), starting with the way that it defines unauthorised access.

"Here is the CFAA's greatest flaw: the law makes it illegal to access a computer without authorisation or in a way that exceeds authorisation, but doesn't clearly explain what that means," wrote EFF attorneys Marcia Hofmann and Rainey Reitman. "This murkiness gives the government tons of leeway to be creative in bringing charges."

The call for reform comes in the wake of the suicide of Aaron Swartz. The Reddit co-founder was facing criminal charges which could have seen him sentenced to up to 35 years in prison.

Following his death, online rights groups called for the enactment of 'Aaron's Law', legislation that would protect users from overly harsh legal penalties for crimes such as copyright infringement. Others released documents in a 'Spartacus' movement of solidarity.

The EFF said that part of this reaction should be a narrowing of the CFAA to prevent law enforcement from pressing serious charges for vague infractions of the law.

"Internet users shouldn't live in fear that they could face criminal liability for mere terms of service violations - especially given that website terms are often vague, lopsided and subject to change without notice," the EFF argued.

"Security testing, code building, and free speech - even if unabashedly impolite - are fundamental parts of the internet's character. Supporting these types of innovation helps keep the internet dynamic and interactive."

The present legal situation means that people could be guilty of breaking the CFAA for some rather peculiar reasons.

For example, a small, light, homely man could go to prison for describing himself as "tall, dark and handsome" on Craigslist, and a lonely heart could be in trouble for expressing carnal desires on a dating website. Also ill-advised in the present legal climate is letting a friend use your Pandora account or using Hootsuite to update your Google Plus webpage.

Swartz's passing led the European Commission VP Neelie Kroes to question whether we need legal changes closer to home. µ


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