Changes sought to 'vague' US computer crime law

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Changes sought to 'vague' US computer crime law

Aaron's Law.

United States politicians are proposing to reform the country's Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), a law that has been used to prosecute internet users for breaking sites and providers' terms of service and meting out decade-long prison sentences for doing so.

Originally devised to to protect government computers from abuse, the CFAA has armed prosecutors with sweeping authorites that criminalise many forms of common internet use, according to Democrat senator Ron Wyden.

Calls for reform of the CFAA arose after technologist and digital activist Aaron Swartz committed suicide this year, ahead of his trial for allegedly downloading large amounts of academic publications from digital repositories in an act of civil disobedience.

Swartz faced up to 35 years in prison if convicted. The charges against him were dropped after his death.

Democrat senators Wyden and Zoe Lofgren say the CFAA is vague and outdated and is so broadly interpreted by prosecutors that harmless and commonplace infractions of websites' terms and services are criminalised.

Lofgren and Wyden's bill is known as Aaron's Law in honour of Swartz. Wyden said Swartz's death "shone a spotlight on the law's obsolescence and potential for prosecutorial abuse".
Currently, the CFAA lets prosecutors stack multiple charges on top of one another, for the exact same crime, thus inflating sentences, according to Wyden.
The two politicians' proposed reform establishes that breaching websites' terms of service, employment agreements and contracts are not automatic violations of the CFAA. They also want greater proportionality to the CFAA penalties that can be meted out, to prevent prosecutors from ratcheting up the severity of sentences.

The CFAA [PDF], which was enacted in 1986 has seen numerous amendments since then. It is one of the laws that US soldier Bradley Manning is accused of having broken for leaking diplomatic cables to Wikileaks.

In 2011, Sony Computer Entertainment America sued George Hotz under the CFAA for jail-breaking the PlayStation 3. The case was settled out of court.

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