The Laboratorium (3d ser.)

A blog by James Grimmelmann

Soyez réglé dans votre vie et ordinaire afin
d'être violent et original dans vos oeuvres.

Consenting to Computer Use

I have posted a draft of my latest essay, Consenting to Computer Use. This is a “short” 8,000-word essay on how we should think about unauthorized access under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. This is a topic I’ve blogged a bit about, mostly to express how difficult some of the issues are. I was invited to be part of a symposium, “Hacking into the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act: The CFAA at 30,” hosted by the George Washington Law Review (where the final version of the essay will appear later this year).

As I was thinking about what to say and write about, I gradually realized that since authorization turns on computers owners’ consent, I ought to read up on the philosophical literature on consent in the law. Although much of that literature tends to be concerned primarily with issues of consent to sex, I found several highly illuminating analyses, particularly Peter Westen’s book The Logic of Consent. Westen makes a number of quite helpful distinctions, and when I applied them to the CFAA, the scales fell from my eyes. Easy cases became hard, and hard cases became, if not easy, than at least more clearly defined. I don’t make any arguments about how far the CFAA does or should extend, but I think I have something helpful to say to anyone making or listening to such arguments. Here’s the abstract:

The federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) makes it a crime to “access[] a computer without authorization or exceed[] authorized access.” Courts and commentators have struggled to explain what types of conduct by a computer user are “without authorization.” But this approach is backwards; authorization is not so much a question of what a computer user does, as it is a question of what a computer owner allows.

In other words, authorization under the CFAA is an issue of consent, not conduct; to understand authorization, we need to understand consent. Building on Peter Westen’s taxonomy of consent, I argue that we should distinguish between the factual question of what uses a computer owner manifests her consent to and the legal question of what uses courts will deem her to have consented to. Doing so allows to distinguish the different kinds of questions presented by different kinds of CFAA cases, and to give clearer and more precise answers to all of them. Some cases require careful fact-finding about what reasonable computer users in the defendant’s position would have known about the owner’s expressed intentions; other cases require frank policy judgments about which kinds of unwanted uses should be considered serious enough to trigger the CFAA.

As always, comments welcome!