Skip a Website’s Terms of Service and Face Jail?


Ever skip over the Terms of Service and other legal contracts when you visit your favorite website?

Admit it, we all do.

Who has the time or energy to read those somewhat-boring documents?

That’s why it was so eye-opening to learn that you could potentially go to jail for violating the Terms of Service associated with the most popular consumer sites.

A new Reason magazine article points out the following:

“The average working American adult, going about his or her normal life, commits several arguable federal felonies a day without even realizing it. Entire lives can change based on the attention of a creative federal prosecutor interpreting vague criminal laws.”

As just one example, it points out that the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is a 1986 law whose prohibitions have been stretched to cover a wide swath of activity never envisioned when the bill was enacted, noting that:

In 2008, federal prosecutors in Los Angeles won a conviction in an online harassment case based on the theory that violating a website’s ‘terms of service’ is a crime under this law.”

The article is referring to the Myspace bullying case, in which a mother was charged with creating a fake Myspace page to cyberbully her daughter’s friend, who then committed suicide. Federal prosecutors argued that the Missouri woman, Lori Drew, created a Myspace account under the name “Josh Evans” and, using that fake identity, developed an online relationship with the 13-year-old victim.

The prosecutors, however, could not find a specific charge for the mother, as no existing crimes on the books specifically matched the Myspace circumstances. So one U.S. Assistant Attorney charged her with the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

In essence, the state prosecutors went after the mother based on violating Myspace’s Terms & Conditions. The Terms & Conditions (which most people just don’t read, after all) states you’re not allowed to provide false information. Prosecutors claimed she violated the Terms of Service, which means her access was not authorized.

In what legal experts said was the country’s first “cyberbullying” verdict, a jury convicted the Missouri woman of three misdemeanor charges of computer fraud for her involvement in the Internet hoax.

At the time of the conviction, computer privacy experts said it was the first time that a federal statute designed to combat computer crimes – the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act — was used to prosecute someone for violating a user agreement on a social networking site.

However, the judge later rejected this interpretation and threw out the jury’s conviction.

Before You Hit ‘Agree’…

How many websites do you visit each day? How often do you read the Terms of Service? Probably not very often.

That’s why it’s so important to be extra-careful the next time you “agree” to something you really don’t know exists in the first place.

After all, what happens if you are charged and convicted for violating some essence of a website’s rules — but your judge isn’t feeling lenient that day?

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Elaine Rigoli

Elaine Rigoli is PRIVATE WiFi's manager of digital content strategy.