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Congress' Horse-And-Buggy Computer Laws

Publication Date: 
February 06, 2013
Source: 
Los Angeles Times
Author: 
Michael Hiltzik

Jennifer Granick, director of Civil Liberties at the Center for Internet and Society spoke with the Los Angeles Times' Michael Hiltzik  on how attempts by Congress to write computer and Internet law have ended up criminalizing "things that are of dubious criminality."

As martyrs go, Aaron Swartz was an extraordinary example of the breed. A computer programming genius, he had helped develop the social networking site Reddit and became known as a leading advocate for easy and free information sharing on the Web.

When Swartz committed suicide in January, while awaiting trial on federal computer hacking charges that could have landed him in prison for 35 years and cost him fines of $1 million, his death was seen as a reproach to overzealous federal prosecutors in Boston. But the case raises a broader issue: Why is Congress so awful at writing computer and Internet laws?

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"Congress tries to write technology-neutral laws," says Jennifer Granick, an Internet law expert at Stanford, "but there's been a wholesale change in how we interact with computers" that renders these laws quickly anachronistic.

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By imposing extra penalties for using a computer to do things that have traditionally been handled in civil court, "these broader laws have criminalized things that are of dubious criminality," Granick told me.