A draft bill from the United States House of Representatives concerning the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) is unsettling. A new provision included could greatly expand its ability to punish, potentially bringing those within the law inside its orbit as worthy of stiff punishment.

As TechDirt noticed, Section 103 of the proposed bill is daunting:

Whoever conspires to commit or attempts to commit an offense under subsection (a) of this section shall be punished as provided for the completed offense in subsection (c) of this section.

Naturally, if a person is known to be directly working to execute illegal tasks, they should be stopped and charged appropriately; if you are conspiring to bomb Times Square, that’s something that we’ll have to act on. However, in the current legal climate by which minor offences – and even crimes that aren’t – are heavily prosecuted, boldening the law to allow the government to slap years in prison onto people it thinks are contemplating breaking computer law is troubling.

The examples that this surfaces are ridiculous. The government must decide what counts as conspiracy. Conversation? Given the often limited or incorrect interpretation of technology by those who hold legal power such a provision could be exceptionally dangerous.

That’s only one issue, however. For example, under the CFAA, abrogating the Terms of Service of a website or tool could lead to comically excessive punishments, TechDirt draws the following example:

Now if you talk with others about the possibility of violating a terms of service — say, talking to your 12 year old child about helping them sign up for Facebook even though the site requires you to be 13 — you may have already committed a felony that can get you years in jail.

The Terms of Service ‘bug’ in the CFAA is up for refrom, you will be happy to hear. Aaron’s Law, named after the late computer activist Aaron Swartz, fixes the issue. As Rep. Zoe Lofgren stated in a Reddit post detailing a new draft of the proposed bill, it would “explicitly [exclude] breaches of terms of service or user agreements as violations of the CFAA and wire fraud statute.”

However, until Aaron’s Law becomes law, it could, provided that Section 103 passes, it is theoretically possible to land jail time for ‘conspiring’ to ignore and cross a Terms of Service agreement. Given that few if any Terms of Service statements are read by the average consumer, those folk could be committing accidental felonies.

The law should be written better than that in a superior fashion.

Top Image Credit: Zoe Rudisill