Technology laws are often poorly written. They’re rarely even understood by the men who enact them. Fill them with the proper buzzwords, turn the lobbyists and special interest groups loose, and lawmakers will fall all over themselves to pass “Anti-hacking” legislation. The result is often the unnecessary criminalization of scores of decent people. This case is a perfect example:

A Michigan man who used a coffee shop’s unsecured Wi-Fi to check his e-mail from his car could have faced up to five years in prison, according to local TV station WOOD. But it seems few in the village of Sparta, Mich., were aware that using an unsecured Wi-Fi connection without the owner’s permission–a practice known as piggybacking–was a felony.

I was just in a coffee shop last week where the network went down. Everyone switched to the open network hosted by the shop next door. Do we really want law enforcement treating those people like felony offenders?

Legal theory from The Volokh Conspiracy:

If I had been Peterson’s attorney, I would have had a bunch of arguments in his defense. First, I would argue that having a statutory presumption is unconstitutional under Sandstrom v. Montana, 442 U.S. 510 (1979). A presumption that a material element of a criminal statute has been satisfied violates the Due Process clause, which requires the government to provide each element beyond a reasonable doubt. Id. at 524. Second, I would argue that even if the presumption is constitutional, it doesn’t apply here: under (c), “[a]ccess was achieved without the use of a set of instructions, code, or computer program that bypasses, defrauds, or otherwise circumvents the pre-programmed access procedure for the computer program, computer, computer system, or computer network.” And finally, the access was not unauthorized or in excess of authorization because the coffee shop intentionally made the wi-fi available to anyone. What’s the rule — no hopping on wifi from a coffee shop unless you enter the shop? Unless you actually buy something? What if you’re outside waiting for a friend to join you for a latte, but you haven’t gone in yet? Where do such rules come from, and what notice does a defendant have before being held criminally liable? I’ve written before about how unauthorized access statutes threaten to punish an incredible amount of conduct online, and this seems like the latest evidence in support of the point.

For more on this story check the mostly informed comments on Slashdot.

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