With renewed interest in the failings of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the role of prosecutorial discretion in its application in light of the tragic outcome in the Aaron Swartz case, I went back to what I wrote about the law in 2009.
Back then, the victim of both the poorly-drafted amendments to CFAA that expanded its scope from government to private computer networks and the politically-motivated zeal of federal prosecutors reaching for something—anything—with which to punish otherwise legal but disfavored behavior was trained on Lori Drew, a far less sympathetic defendant.
But the dangers lurking in the CFAA were just as visible in 2009 as they are today. Those who have recently picked up the banner calling for reform of the law might ask themselves where they were back then, and why the ultimately unsuccessful Drew prosecution didn’t raise their hackles at the time.
The law was just as bad in 2009, and just as dangerously twisted by the government. Indeed, the Drew case, as I wrote at the time, gave all the notice anyone needed of what was to come later. Continue reading →
Defining “privacy” is a legal and philosophical nightmare. Few concepts engender more definitional controversies and catfights. As someone who is passionate about his own personal privacy — but also highly skeptical of top-down governmental attempts to regulate and/or protect it — I continue to be captivated by the intellectual wrangling that has taken place over the definition of privacy. Here are some thoughts from a wide variety of scholars that make it clear just how frustrating this endeavor can be:
“Perhaps the most striking thing about the right to privacy is that nobody seems to have any very clear idea what it is.” – Judith Jarvis Thomson, “The Right to Privacy,” in Philosophical Dimensions of Privacy: An Anthology, 272, 272 (Ferdinand David Schoeman ed., 1984).
privacy is “exasperatingly vague and evanescent.” – Arthur Miller, The Assault on Privacy: Computers, Data Banks, and Dossiers, 25 (1971).
“[T]he concept of privacy is infected with pernicious ambiguities.” – Hyman Gross, The Concept of Privacy, 42 N.Y.U. L. REV. 34, 35 (1967).
“Attempts to define the concept of ‘privacy’ have generally not met with any success.” – Colin Bennett, Regulating Privacy: Data Protection and Public Policy In Europe and the United States, 25 (1992).
“When it comes to privacy, there are many inductive rules, but very few universally accepted axioms.” - David Brin, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us To Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? 77(1998).
“Privacy is a value so complex, so entangled in competing and contradictory dimensions, so engorged with various and distinct meanings, that I sometimes despair whether it can be usefully addressed at all.” – Robert C. Post, Three Concepts of Privacy, 89 GEO. L.J. 2087, 2087 (2001).
“[privacy] can mean almost anything to anybody.” – Fred H. Cate & Robert Litan, Constitutional Issues in Information Privacy, 9Mich. Telecomm. & Tech. L. Rev. 35, 37 (2002).
privacy has long been a “conceptual jungle” and a “concept in disarray.” “[T]he attempt to locate the ‘essential’ or ‘core’ characteristics of privacy has led to failure.” – Daniel J. Solove, Understanding Privacy 196, 8 (2008).
“Privacy has really ceased to be helpful as a term to guide policy in the United States.” - Woodrow Hartzog, quoted in Cord Jefferson, Spies Like Us: We’re All Big Brother Now, Gizmodo, Sept. 27, 2012.
“for most consumers and policymakers, privacy is not a rational topic. It’s a visceral subject, one on which logical arguments are largely wasted.” – Larry Downes, A Rational Response to the Privacy “Crisis,” Cato Institute, Policy Analysis No. 716 (Jan. 7, 2013), at 6.
Sean Flaim, an attorney focusing on antitrust, intellectual property, cyberlaw, and privacy, discusses his new paper “Copyright Conspiracy: How the New Copyright Alert System May Violate the Sherman Act,” recently published in the New York University Journal of Intellectual Property and Entertainment Law.
Flaim describes content owners early attempts to enforce copyright through lawsuit as a “public relations nightmare” that humanized piracy and created outrage over large fines imposed on casual downloaders. According to Flaim, the Copyright Alert System is a more nuanced approach by the content industry to crack down on copyright infringement online, which arose in response to a government failure to update copyright law to reflect the nature of modern information exchange.
Flaim explains the six stages of the Copyright Alert System in action, noting his own suspicions about the program’s states intent as a education tool for repeat violators of copyright law online. In addition to antitrust concerns, Flaim worries that appropriate cost-benefit analysis has not been applied to this private regulation system, and, ultimately, that private companies are being granted a government-like power to punish individuals for breaking the law.
It was my honor today to be a panelist at a Hill event on “Apps, Ads, Kids & COPPA: Implications of the FTC’s Additional Proposed Revisions,” which was co-sponsored by the Family Online Safety Institute and the Association for Competitive Technology. It was a free-wheeling discussion, but I prepared some talking points for the event that I thought I would share here for anyone interested in my views about the Federal Trade Commission’s latest proposed revisions to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).
The Commission deserves credit for very wisely ignoring calls by some to extend the coverage of COPPA’s regulatory provisions from children under 13 all the way up to teens up to 18.
Stefan Krappitz, writer of the book Troll Culture: A Comprehensive Guide, discusses the phenomenon of internet trolling. For Krappitz trolling is disrupting people for personal amusement. Trolling is largely a positive phenomenon argues Krappitz. While it can become very negative in some cases, for the most part trolling is simply an amusing practice that is no different than playing practical jokes. Krappitz believes that trolling has been around since before the age of the internet. He notes that the behavior of Socrates is reminiscent of trolling because he pretended to be a student and then used his questioning to mock people who did not know what they were talking about. Krappitz also discusses anonymity and how it contributes and takes away from trolling as well as discussing where the line is between good trolling and cyber-bullying.
I highly recommend this important new study on “Why Parents Help Their Children Lie to Facebook about Age: Unintended Consequences of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act” by danah boyd of New York University, Eszter Hargittai from Northwestern University, Jason Schultz from University of California, Berkeley, and John Palfrey from Harvard University. COPPA is a complicated and somewhat open-ended law and regulatory regime. COPPA requires that commercial operators of websites and services obtain “verifiable parental consent” before collecting, disclosing, or using “personal information” (name, contact information) of children under the age of 13 if either their website or service (or “portion thereof”) is “directed at children” or they have actual knowledge that they are collecting personal information from a child.
The new study, which surveyed over 1,000 parents of children between the ages of 10 and 14, reveals that, despite the best of intentions, COPPA is having many unintended costs and consequences:
Although many sites restrict access to children, our data show that many parents knowingly allow their children to lie about their age — in fact, often help them to do so — in order to gain access to age–restricted sites in violation of those sites’ ToS. This is especially true for general–audience social media sites and communication services such as Facebook, Gmail, and Skype, which allow children to connect with peers, classmates, and family members for educational, social, or familial reasons.
The authors conclude that “COPPA inadvertently undermines parents’ ability to make choices and protect their children’s data” and that their results “have significant implications for policy–makers, particularly in light of ongoing discussions surrounding COPPA and other age–based privacy laws.” Indeed, this paper could really shake up the debate over online kids’ privacy regulation. I will have more analysis of the paper in my weekly Forbes column this weekend.
TechFreedom, in association with the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), will host a lunch panel with a number of leading experts to discuss the FTC’s recently-proposed revisions to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Opening remarks will be delivered by the Federal Trade Commission’s Phyllis Marcus, a Senior Staff Attorney at the Division of Advertising Practices. Afterwards, the panel will discuss the FTC’s proposals and what they mean for children, parents, Internet companies and innovation.
FOSI CEO Stephen Balkam will serve as master of ceremonies. The panel will be moderated by Berin Szoka, President of TechFreedom, and will include:
A year ago, I filed a joint amicus brief with the Electronic Frontier Foundation urging the Supreme Court to overturn California’s paternalistic law on the dangerous grounds that videogame depictions of violence constituted “obscenity” unprotected by the First Amendment. Fortunately, we won. Thus, the First Amendment protects all media, while parents have a variety of tools available to them to limit what content their kids can consume, or games they can play.
But in case you’re wondering what the world might look like had the decision gone the other way, check out the contrast between the US version of Maroon 5′s hit song “Misery” and the UK version. First, here’s the (raucous and sexy) US version:
Now, here’s the UK version, where the sexually suggestive parts remain (kids love that stuff) but all the “violent” parts have been replaced with, or covered by, ridiculous cartoon images. Really, it’s just too funny. The best part is where the knife she uses to stab the gaps between his fingers on the table has been replaced with a cartoon ice cream cone. Don’t try that at home, kids—you’ll make a chocolatey mess! Continue reading →
Hot-tempered police offers, pushover judges, and vague laws make for a dangerous combination. In July, a controversy erupted in Renton, Washington (a Seattle suburb) when the town’s police department launched a legal assault on an anonymous YouTube user for merely uploading a few sarcastic videos poking fun at the department’s scandals.
In an op-ed in The Seattle Times, Nicole Ciandella and I explain what happened in Renton and discuss the saga’s implications for constitutional rights in the digital age:
According to Washington state law, a person is guilty of criminal “cyberstalking” if he makes an electronic communication using lewd or indecent language with the intent to embarrass another person. In other words, a Washingtonian who creates a raunchy email message, blog post or Web video to embarrass a foe isn’t just playing dirty; he’s technically breaking the law. One YouTube user recently learned this lesson the hard way.
Last month, the scandal-ridden Renton Police Department launched a criminal cyberstalking investigation against a YouTube user known only as “MrFuddlesticks.” The user had uploaded a series of lewd, animated videos poking fun at recent allegations of wrongdoing by Renton police officers. In one video, a character talks about his civilian superior’s lack of law-enforcement experience; in another, characters discuss the impropriety of a police officer who slept with a murder suspect.
Even though none of MrFuddlesticks’ videos mention the city of Renton or any police officers by name, Renton police managed to convince a county judge to issue a warrant to compel Google, YouTube’s parent company, to disclose identifying information about MrFuddlesticks’ accounts, including credit-card details and even contents of Gmail messages.
Here on the TLF, we’ve repeatedly cautioned lawmakers about the dangers of criminalizing cyberstalking (1, 2, 3, 4). Back in 2006, CNET’s Declan McCullagh explained why all Internet users should be worried about vague, overbroad cyberstalking laws. As the troubling actions of Renton’s finest illustrate, the potential for such laws to be abused is very real. Let’s hope lawmakers in Washington and in the numerous other states with cyberstalking laws on the books take a hard look at their laws.