A Nation of Criminals

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Further to my previous post, I recommend Stephen Carter's column for Bloomberg View on the American zeal for making more and more conduct criminal. Referring to Douglas Husak's book, Overcriminalization, he writes:

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act -- the principal statute under which Swartz was charged -- is a good example of Husak's point [about the government's expanding "power to arrest and prosecute nearly everyone"]. Enacted in the 1980s, before the Internet explosion, the statute makes a criminal of anyone who "intentionally accesses a computer without authorization or exceeds authorized access" and, in the process, obtains financial information, government information or "information from any protected computer."

What's wrong with this language? Consider: You're sitting in your office, when suddenly you remember that you forgot to pay your Visa bill. You take a moment to log on to your bank account, and you pay the bill. Then you go back to work. If your employer has a policy prohibiting personal use of office computers, then you have exceeded your authorized access; since you went to your bank website, you have obtained financial information.

Believe it or not, you're now a felon. The likelihood of prosecution might be small, but you've still committed a crime.

Carter recommends, as a partial remedy for prosecutorial excess, a measured rolling back of prosecutors' immunity from civil liability. It's a very good article.

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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