As the Internet’s influence on global commerce, culture and information continues to tread new ground, there is a need to update and reform outdated laws that threaten its continued development. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is a nearly 30-year-old criminal law with sweeping authorities that criminalize many forms of common Internet use. U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has introduced legislation that reforms the CFAA to bring it in line with the needs of a 21st century digital landscape.
The reform proposal — also introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) – clarifies a vague and outdated statute initially intended to protect government computers from malicious hacks but is now interpreted so broadly as to criminalize harmless and commonplace infractions of a website’s terms of service. Aaron’s Law removes redundant provisions in the CFAA that only serve to give prosecutors the ability to stack multiple felony charges on top of one another for the exact same crime and lengthen potential prison sentences.
“The CFAA is a vague and problematic law that no longer responds to the needs and challenges of today’s digital ecosystem,” Wyden said. “The law should not enable Americans to be prosecuted for felonies because of a mere violation of a website’s term of service. The CFAA’s broad scope and vague standards all but invite prosecutorial abuse. The important reforms we propose today would bring the law in line with the reality of the digital landscape of 2013 while making sure the changes do not undermine the ability to fully prosecute malicious hacks.”
The bill is known as “Aaron’s Law” after the online innovator and activist whose death earlier this year while facing up to 35 years in prison for an act of civil disobedience shone a spotlight on the law’s obsolescence and potential for prosecutorial abuse. It establishes that merely breaching a website’s terms of service, employment agreements or contracts are not automatic violations of the CFAA. It streamlines the law, removing redundant provisions that do nothing but allow prosecutors to charge defendants with multiple felonies for the exact same infraction, and curbs abuse by preventing prosecutors from artificially inflating sentences by stacking multiple charges under CFAA including state law equivalents and non-criminal violations of the law.