Like the rest of you, I rely heavily on the Internet to get things done. And when I'm using the Internet, I like to avoid as many delays and hassles as I can.
This has led me to come up with several methods and techniques to get through sites quickly and efficiently. For example, I often download trial and free software from Web sites and these sites usually ask for an e-mail address but will then directly send you to the download page without requiring an e-mail confirmation. Usually on these sites, instead of using my real e-mail address, I'll make up a random e-mail address (for example something like [email protected]) and move on to my download without fear of annoying follow up e-mails.
I also often use the bugmenot.com service which lets me bypass logins on sites that I don't frequent regularly.
These types of shortcuts have made using the Internet much more efficient and hassle free for me. And they have also made me a violator of most of these Web sites' terms of service. And, if a recent court decision isn't overturned in appeal, they also make me a criminal.
Recently the trial in the MySpace suicide case ended and the defendant in the case was found guilty of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, often known as the anti-hacking law. Did she break into MySpace servers and steal data? Did she use a botnet to subvert systems there? Nope, she created a fake MySpace account to harass a young girl who later committed suicide.
Definitely there were despicable acts carried out by this defendant. And ambitious federal prosecutors seized on the anti-hacking law as one of the only ways they could go after the defendant. But by doing so they've potentially made nearly every user of the Internet into a criminal.
I would wager that less than 10 percent of the people reading this column have never violated a Web site or ISPs terms of service. If you don't think so, take some time to read some. It's almost impossible to use the Internet without violating these over-reaching "contracts" (and I use that term very lightly).
Now some have said that this isn't a big deal, that this was used to go after someone who did something clearly wrong and that the rest of us have nothing to fear. But these types of decisions never roll back, they only continue to creep on and grow in scope.
After all, the writers of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act never anticipated it being used in this way. It would only be a matter of time until someone who wasn't doing anything really bad (maybe being a political dissident, for example) was charged with a federal crime for using bugmenot.com to read The New York Times' Web site.
The good news is that nearly every legal expert expects this decision to be overturned in appeal. I certainly hope they are right (though my pessimistic side points out that many didn't expect it to go this far).
But even if this decision is overturned, it once again points out how fragile this thing we call the Internet really is. Just one simple court decision has the potential to destroy freedom and anonymity on the Internet. And just another reason why we all need to make sure that lawmakers and courts don't make broad technology laws that can be stretched to do things that no one intended.