Are You A Teenager Who Reads News Online? According to the Justice Department, You May Be a Criminal
Dave Maass and Trevor Timm
April 4th, 2013
Reader Views: 1,099
During his first term, President Barack Obama declared October 2009 to be â€śNational Information Literacy Awareness Month,â€ť emphasizing that, for students, learning to navigate the online world is as important a skill as reading, writing and arithmetic. It was a move that echoed his predecessor’s strong support of global literacyâ€”such asÂ reading newspapersâ€”most notably through First Lady Laura Bush’sÂ advocacy.
Yet, disturbingly, the Departments of Justice (DOJ) of both the Bush and Obama administrations have embraced an expansive interpretation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) that would literally make it a crime for many kids to read the news online. And itâ€™s the main reasonÂ why the law must be reformed.
“YOU MAY NOT ACCESS OR USE THE COVERED SITES OR ACCEPT THE AGREEMENT IF YOU ARE NOT AT LEAST 18 YEARS OLD.â€ť
In the DOJâ€™s world, this means anyone under 18 who reads a Hearst newspaper online could hypothetically face jail time. But Hearstâ€™s publications arenâ€™t the only ones with overly restrictive usage terms.Â U-T San DiegoÂ and theÂ Miami HeraldÂ have similar policies. EvenÂ NPR is guilty, saying teenagers canâ€™t access their â€śservicesâ€ť (including the site, NPR podcasts and the media player) without a permission slip:
â€śIf you are between the ages of 13 and 18, you may browse the NPR Services or register for email newsletters or other features of the NPR Services (excluding the NPR Community) with the consent of your parent(s) or guardian(s), so long as you do not submit any User Materials.â€ť
Some sites must have recognized the problem and crafted their policies to only forbid users under the age of 13.Â These include theÂ New York Times, theÂ Boston Globe, and theÂ Arizona Republic.Â NBCNews.com usesÂ this wording:
“By using or attempting to use the Site or Services, you certify that you are at least 13 years of age or other required greater age for certain features and meet any other eligibility and residency requirements of the Site.â€ť
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.
Weâ€™d like to say that weâ€™re being facetious, but, unfortunately, the Justice Department has already demonstrated its willingness to pursue CFAA toÂ absurdÂ extremes. Luckily, the Ninth Circuit rejected the governmentâ€™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 aptlyÂ wrote: “Under the governmentâ€™s proposed interpretation of the CFAA…describing yourself as ‘tall, dark and handsome,’ when youâ€™re actually short and homely, will earn you a handsome orange jumpsuit.”
And itâ€™s no excuse to say that the vast majority of these cases will never be prosecuted. As the Ninth Circuit explained, â€śUbiquitous, seldom-prosecuted crimes invite arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.â€ť Instead of pursuing only suspects of actual crimes, it opens the door for prosecutors to go after people because the government doesnâ€™t like them.
Unfortunately, thereâ€™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 theÂ New YorkerÂ recently called the CFAAÂ â€śthe most outrageous criminal law youâ€™ve never heard of.â€ť
The potential criminalization of terms of service is a prime reason that Congress needs to overhaul CFAA and itâ€™s certainly why the House Judiciary Committee should abandon the seemingly DOJ-drafted bill it floated recently and instead sit down with Rep. Zoe Lofgren, Rep. Darrell Issa, and others to negotiate real reform.
Are you a minor with a thirst for information? You, and your parents who vote,Â should together tell Congress to fix CFAA.
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Contributed by Dave Maass and Trevor Timm of eff.org.
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