Vague Laws, Service Terms Create Web-Law Confusion
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You may consider yourself a law-abiding citizen. But you may not be if you share your Facebook login credentials with another person, a Facebook terms of service (TOS) violation.
For now, people who violate their TOS agreements with any online company, including Facebook, Netflix, Instagram and Google, could be prosecuted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). The law was passed in 1986, years before the Internet became an essential part of everyday life and people began agreeing to service terms by simply clicking boxes.
Lawmakers have known for years that the law, which was largely designed to protect the government from hackers, could also ensnare ordinary citizens. But the recent suspected suicide of Internet activist Aaron Swartz , 26, who faced the prospect of decades-long imprisonment for a relatively minor violation of the law, has reignited support for updating the law.
Numerous changes to the CFAA could be made, but California congresswoman Zoe Lofgren has focused on excluding terms of service violations in a bill she dubbed "Aaron's Law."
"A simple way to correct this dangerous legal interpretation is to change the CFAA … to exclude terms of service violations," she wrote on social news site, Reddit. Lofgren is a member of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Intellectual Property, Competition and the Internet.
She's not the first lawmaker to attempt limiting the CFAA in this way. In 2011, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed an amendment to CFAA (S. 1151) that limited the scope of what's considered "exceeding authorized access" of a computer, one of the charges brought against Swartz under the CFAA. That amendment would have excluded terms of service violations.
A similar bill in the House did not fare as well. In a hearing, the Justice Department told the committee that not only should they reject the amendment, but they should also explicitly make such violations criminal offenses. Legislators shelved the House bill, while the Senate bill never made it to the floor.
For now, the consequences for violating terms of service agreements with providers remain in muddy legal waters. Read more: How Computer Hacking Laws Make You a Criminal
"The actions of a father logging onto his son's Facebook account to check up on him, a 17-year-old clicking through a screen requiring him to be 18 to shop for clothes at an online store, or an employee checking sports scores from his corporate desktop could be considered crimes under some interpretations of the CFAA," Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), co-sponsor of S. 1151 said during a hearing on the amendment.
And what about sharing your Netflix or Hulu Plus account with friends? Neither provider offers clear guidance as to what might constitute a violation. Each mentions that the account holder is responsible for how household members use the services, but does not say whether it's okay to share accounts with others.
Most people assume it's not OK. But who knows? TechNewsDaily reached out to Netflix and Hulu Plus for clarification. Netflix did not respond, while a Hulu Plus spokeswoman wrote, "We are declining to comment on your story."
If Lofgren's new bill passes, it would exclude terms of service agreements from the criminal justice system. But it could be months before her bill comes before committee, and even then, few bills become law. Further, decriminalizing service violations would not protect users from civil lawsuits.
While it's unlikely that you'd be prosecuted for such violations, the possibility exists.
You should always read a site's terms of service, but doing so does not mean you are protected when some companies continue to leave their agreements as vague as the CFAA itself.