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It’s Not A Crime to Violate MySpace’s Terms of Use

A federal judge in Missouri dismissed the MySpace suicide-hoax case. Here’s a very good article from the LA Times on the case.

Aside from the question of whether it’s a good idea to pose as someone you aren’t in order to upset a teenage girl, this case presents an extraordinarily muscular theory of criminal liability from the United States Department of Justice.

A little background – federal law prohibits unauthorized access to a computer or computer server. The idea is that if I’m having a dinner party, and you’re a guest, and you sneak up to my computer and access it without my permission to look at my bank records or iTunes playlist, that conduct should be criminalized. Similarly, if you hack into my online banking accounts, independent of whether you commit another crime (like wire fraud) that conduct should be illegal. So federal law makes it a crime to use a computer without authorization.

MySpace, like just about every other thing you find on the web these days, requires that you agree to Terms of Use in order to use their service. If you’re a sophisticated enough computer user to read this blog, you’ve probably seen two or three dozen of these. And if you’ve read a single one of them I’d be very surprised. Almost no one reads the Terms of Use, including, I suspect, the prosecutors at the Department of Justice who brought this case.

One of the provisions of the MySpace Terms of Use is that you not use the service to pretend to be someone else to make a teenage girl feel bad (that may not be the precise language). So, the Department of Justice brought criminal charges on a theory that violating the Terms of Use mean that the access to MySpace’s server was unauthorized, and, as a result, was a crime.

Had this prosecution been allowed to stand, it would have meant that any time you violate any of the myriad unread Terms of Use that you have agreed with without reading, you could have been charged with a crime in federal court. Surely, most “criminals” of this sort wouldn’t be charged, but the potential for government abuse is obvious and widespread.

Very happily, a federal judge has put a stop to this nonsense. Let’s hope the appellate court agrees.

If you have questions about how federal criminal charges are different than state criminal charges, please visit this page on Maryland federal criminal charges or Washington DC federal criminal charges.

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One response to “It’s Not A Crime to Violate MySpace’s Terms of Use”

  1. The MySpace Opinion is Here! says:

    […] I blogged about before, it is not a crime to violate MySpace’s terms of use. And, now, there’s a judicial opinion that sets forth the court’s […]