Criminalizing cyberspace: from Myanmar to California, going digital can mean going to jail

Dennis Baron debaron at ILLINOIS.EDU
Tue Nov 25 05:41:11 UTC 2008

There's a new post on the Web of Language: Criminalizing cyberspace:
from Myanmar to California, going digital can mean going to jail

Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma, has sentenced prominent
comedian U Maung Thura to 45 years in jail for violating the country's
"Electronic Act," which strictly controls digital communication.


In addition to punishing individual computer users, Myanmar regularly
pulls the plug on its internet as part of the country's self-imposed
isolation from the rest of the world.


Governments around the world from China to Syria to Cuba strictly
control computer use and routinely jail their citizens for violating
digital communication laws. Even the United States, which takes a much
more liberal approach to computer use, has its own version of
Myanmar's "Electronic Act," and it too can land "users" violating its
provisions in the clink.

The U.S. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), a kind of Digital
Patriot Act, gives the federal government broad powers to protect
computer data "against unauthorized disclosure for reasons of national
defense or foreign relations . . . . [when] information so obtained
could be used to the injury of the United States, or to the advantage
of any foreign nation." CFAA also criminalizes hacking bank computers
or stealing online credit information; and breaching private computers
to perpetrate fraud.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority invoked the CFAA to get
a temporary restraining order against three MIT students who wanted to
present their computer science term paper on how to hack the transit
company's fare ticket at the DEFCON computer security conference in
Las Vegas. In their defense, the students insisted that their
presentation did not actually show people how to ride for free, plus
they offered to tell the MBTA exactly where its system was vulnerable.

In refusing to extend the ten-day TRO, U.S. District Judge George A.
O'Toole Jr. said "the damaging 'transmission' of information that is
regulated by the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act applies to computers,
not to speech." In other words, the students could talk about their
hack at a conference as long as they didn't email about it.

Across the continent, another CFAA trial continues in California. In
this case, a Missouri woman is charged with "three counts of accessing
a computer without authorization via interstate commerce to obtain
information to inflict emotional distress," a violation of the CFAA
which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years....

find out more, read the rest of this post on the Web of Language --

Dennis Baron
Professor of English and Linguistics
Department of English
University of Illinois
608 S. Wright St.
Urbana, IL 61801

office: 217-244-0568
fax: 217-333-4321

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