One problem with new media in free societies* is that the legal situation is still being hammered out – as I write this, and as you read it. Courts often just do not have enough background to properly assess crime and punishment.
A couple of weeks ago, a Sacramento jury convicted journalist Matthew Keys of helping Anonymous hack the website of the LA Times. Prosecutors have said they will seek jail time — likely less than five years. But the reason you should care about is because the law he was charged under — The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act — makes all kinds of computer usage illegal. Including the kinds of things you do every day, from using someone else’s Netflix password to not using your real name on Facebook.
Keys was a web producer for FOX 40, a Sacramento TV station owned by The Tribune Company. He either quit or was fired, depending on who you ask, around October 2010. Nursing a grudge, he allowed access to the site to some hackers, via his password.
Okay, that was wrong. The result was
Shortly afterwards, an article on the LA Times website, titled “Pressure builds in House to pass tax-cut package,” was defaced. The new headline read, “Pressure builds in House to elect CHIPPY 1337.”
It’s possibly the most meaningless hack in the history of time, not to mention really short-lived. The fake headline was only up for about 40 minutes, and it’s very likely no one even saw it.
As Motherboard explains,
According to the defense, the article was changed back in an hour. But prosecutors claim that the Tribune spent over $5,000 to fix the defacement. The amount is no coincidence—$5,000 is the jurisdictional requirement for them make the charges stick. But placing a $5,000 price tag on a weird and kind of embarrassing article being up on a website is, maybe, controversial.
Seldom does ex-employee spite attract criminal charges, precisely because the situation is charged, the damage is minimal, and the ex-employee usually just goes away after exposure.
It seems that the Tribune Company reached the minimum damages amount to pursue a serious criminal trial on account of paying a consultant thousands of dollars to research the fairly straightforward and trivial hack.
The trouble is, in a new area like this, judges may be as confused as everyone else about what is and isn’t a significant crime.
Some other Internet-related legal issues include:
– Defamation law is woefully behind the internet age, in terms of understanding who has responsibility in what context. At one time, as one lawyer has said, only famous people had libel or slander issues. But recently, a provincial Canadian court ordered Google to block sites worldwide, in a ruling on a local trade dispute that involved such claims (the ruling was later overturned).
Significantly the trial judge had assumed that Google is a “publisher,” in some traditional sense. Google is actually a new type of corporate entity, a sponsor of search engines.
– Underage sexting is common but risks child porn law charges. Obviously we want to prevent underage sexting, but traditional legal methods may be too clumsy for the context. Similarly, under compulsory education acts, students within a certain age range are required to be at school by law, but some sexual self-expression lobby groups contest school internet filters.
– Differing legal standards around the world have enabled a significant industry to grow up in some developng countries, marketing fake friend profiles, fake Facebook likes, fake Twitter followers, and fake product reviews. This sort of activity would attract criminal charges in other jurisdictions, but there is no such simple way to prevent it on the internet.
– The global nature of the internet also fosters clashes as to what constitutes “wrong speech,” clashes that would never have arisen a century ago.
– Meanwhile, our e-mail is not private, any more than a postcard is.
Over time, the law will likely address many of these issues in a more realistic way than at present. Meanwhile, we can expect some strange decisions.
* Note: The Saudi blogger who was sentenced to 1000 lashes for criticizing the government will begin to receive more of his sentence, his wife, who lives in Quebec, Canada, has told Canadian media. (The flogging had been suspended after the first 50 lashes.) She would like to bring him to Canada. But the new Liberal majority government must weigh multicultural sensitivity, as the previous Conservative government was much criticized for insensitivity to Islamic culture and practices.
Here’s how hackers can get into a system:
Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.