Indeed, if the court were to agree with Verizon's First Amendment argument, ISPs would have legal carte blanche to "edit" their subscribers' online communications. Subscribers could complain to their ISPs, of course, but most Americans have very few options for broadband access and so may not have the luxury of voting with their pocketbooks by changing providers. The end result would be an Internet on which new and experimental services and technologies cannot just be launched, but instead require the prior consent or participation of major ISPs. The "next big thing" might never get off the ground.
Reform of a Dangerously Broad Computer Crime Law
What's the issue? The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) is a dangerously vague and broad law -- so much so that simply lying about your age on Facebook, or otherwise violating a website's terms of service or an employer's computer use policy, could be prosecuted as a federal crime. For years my organization, the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), has worked with a broad, bipartisan coalition to reform this law to better protect average Internet users and better target malicious hackers.
Last year this coalition succeeded in getting the Senate Judiciary Committee to approve new language that would have narrowed the law. Unfortunately, the bill to which that language was attached didn't make it to the Senate floor before the end of the congressional session.
At the beginning of this year, however, a tragedy revived the debate over what conduct should count as a computer crime and how those crimes should be punished. The week before Internet Freedom Day -- a holiday to commemorate the victory against SOPA that he helped make possible -- Internet activist Aaron Swartz took his own life. At the time of his death, Aaron was facing the possibility of years in prison and millions of dollars in fines for alleged violations of the CFAA, and his death has prompted new bipartisan calls for reform on Capitol Hill.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., posted to Reddit a draft CFAA reform bill -- "Aaron's Law" -- shortly after Swartz's passing. In the spirit of the open Internet that Swartz championed, CDT has been collaborating with allies like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU and Stanford's Center for Internet & Society in an open process on Reddit to provide suggestions on how that draft can be improved and expanded before it's introduced. Fixing the CFAA is long overdue, and we hope that this tragedy will at the very least spur Congress to enact these much needed reforms.
What's at stake? The ability to use the Internet without fear of being targeted by an overzealous prosecutor and threatened with decades in prison for taking steps to protect your identity, engage in critical security research, or make innovative uses of data that's been published to the public web. With Rep. Lofgren and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., indicating their intent to introduce CFAA reform bills that would clarify and narrow the scope of the law, other advocates further pressing for more just and proportionate penalties under the law, and netroots activists gearing up for major campaigning on the issue, it looks like 2013 may finally be the year that Congress updates computer crime law for the 21st century.
Violating a contract isn't a felony in the offline world and it shouldn't be one in the online world, and as it has in past years, CDT will continue to work with its allies to press for a CFAA that is both strong on crime and sensible in its scope.