A federal court has ruled that violating a website's terms of service is not "hacking" under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
The plaintiffs wanted to investigate possible racial discrimination in online job markets by creating accounts for fake employers and job seekers. Leading job sites have terms of service prohibiting users from supplying fake information, and the researchers worried that their research could expose them to criminal liability under the CFAA, which makes it a crime to "access a computer without authorization or exceed authorized access."
So in 2016 they sued the federal government, seeking a declaration that this part of the CFAA violated the First Amendment.
But rather than addressing that constitutional issue, Judge John Bates ruled on Friday that the plaintiffs' proposed research wouldn't violate the CFAA's criminal provisions at all. Someone violates the CFAA when they bypass an access restriction like a password. But someone who logs into a website with a valid password doesn't become a hacker simply by doing something prohibited by a website's terms of service, the judge concluded.
"Criminalizing terms-of-service violations risks turning each website into its own criminal jurisdiction and each webmaster into his own legislature," Bates wrote.
Bates noted that website terms of service are often long, complex, and change frequently. While some websites require a user to read through the terms and explicitly agree to them, others merely include a link to the terms somewhere on the page. As a result, most users aren't even aware of the contractual terms that supposedly govern the site. Under those circumstances, it's not reasonable to make violation of such terms a criminal offense, Bates concluded.
This is not the first time a court has issued a ruling in this direction. It's also not the only way the courts have interpreted the frustratingly vague Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.