House lawmakers skeptical of relaxing computer crime law

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"The theft of valuable intellectual property is a serious strategic threat to the American economy, and it must be treated as such by U.S. law enforcement," Sensenbrenner said. 

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the chairman of the full Judiciary Committee, noted that hackers recently obtained sensitive financial data for First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and other top officials and celebrities. He said Congress "can and must do more" to combat the problem of hackers.

The CFAA, which was enacted in 1986, makes it illegal to gain access to a computer "without authorization." Some courts have ruled that the law makes it illegal to violate a website's terms of service or to disobey an employer's instructions for computer use.

Advocates such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation have targeted the CFAA since the suicide of Internet activist Aaron Swartz earlier this year. He was facing prison time for breaking into a university computer network and downloading millions of academic articles from a subscription service.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) has introduced "Aaron's Law," which would clarify that violating a company's terms of service is not a crime under the CFAA. 

An array of Internet companies and advocacy groups sent a letter to the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, urging the panel to support Lofgren's bill. The group, which included Reddit, Vuze, the American Library Association and the Internet Infrastructure Coalition, argued that the CFAA "chills innovation and economic growth by threatening developers and entrepreneurs who create groundbreaking technology."

Orin Kerr, a George Washington University law professor, testified that the CFAA is "remarkably vague" and that Congress should clarify what behavior is prohibited. He argued that the CFAA, as currently written, could make criminals out of most computer users because they often violate websites' fine print.

But Sensenbrenner warned that exempting terms of service violations could create loopholes in the law and legalize some damaging behavior.

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the subcomittee's ranking member, said he is open to updating the CFAA to address new threats but that lawmakers must be careful to "actually improve the law and not just ratchet up penalties in an exercise of soundbite politics."

He said he is opposed to mandatory minimum penalties, which he said often result in sentences that are "violative of common sense."