Internet Law: The Regulation of Internet Crime


The growth of the Internet poses unique opportunities and unique problems around the world today. Just as law abiding persons utilize the Internet for many useful and productive purposes, criminals, hackers, and even careless persons lacking wrongful intent can misuse the Internet's capabilities and create serious problems. Internet fraud, viruses and related destructive programs, copyright infringement, theft of services and data, and related offenses create billions of dollars in losses annually. Law enforcement at both the federal and state level is struggling to keep pace with advancements in computer technology, but a wide variety of laws useful in fighting computer crime can be of assistance. Like the medium they govern, these laws are evolving to meet changing technology and criminal behavior.

Means of Combating Internet Crime

In many ways, Internet crimes are similar to long-established crimes. Theft, fraud, vandalism, trespass, harassment, child pornography, and copyright infringement are problems that predate the Internet. Existing law in these areas forms a basis on which federal and state authorities can pursue individuals who commit related crimes using the Internet. Problems arise, however, not so much with the nature of the crime as with the nature of the Internet. The network of computers spanning the globe allows individuals in virtually any country or state to commit illegal acts in any other location as long as there is a computer and an Internet connection in both places. The tremendous reach and near anonymity of the Internet make it difficult for prosecutors to trace criminal activity to its source. Furthermore, once they do, limits of jurisdiction may prevent them from bringing charges against the responsible individuals.

To address the unique nature of the Internet, federal and state legislatures have supplemented existing criminal laws with new statutes. Federal and state prosecutors may now choose from a wide body of laws to attack Internet crime, including the:

  • Computer Fraud and Abuse Act;
  • Federal Wire Fraud Statute;
  • Copyright Act;
  • Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996; and
  • Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

There are many other federal and state laws that punish crimes committed over the Internet, including those committed against private individuals and companies, and federal and state governments. Prosecutors, legislatures and the courts keep track of one another's actions, searching for effective ways to handle the expanding problem of Internet crime. In addition, the international community has begun a dialogue over how to fight crime across national boundaries.

Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

One of the most important of these laws is the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), which Congress passed in the mid-1980s and has continued to amend. This law, as the name indicates, was passed expressly to combat crimes involving computers. This act prohibits, among other things, transmitting programs or codes that damage computer networks, as well as gaining access to a computer fraudulent purposes. One of the first early cases under this act involved a Cornell University student who released a computer virus onto the Internet in 1988. The virus, or "worm," replicated itself in infected computers until they finally crashed from the overload of data. The worm spread across the country and shut down thousands of computers, creating losses estimated at nearly $100 million. The student responsible was convicted under the CFAA. Prosecutors continue to use this act to combat damages caused by hackers, as well crimes of fraud and other offenses. The law provides for both fines and jail terms for violators.

Federal Wire Fraud Statute

Another law covering a broad array of criminal activity is the federal wire fraud statute. Although passed some 50 years ago, this law addresses crimes committed over telephone lines and is therefore better suited to some Internet crimes than other laws. The wire fraud act applies to schemes to secure property or money through fraud perpetrated over interstate wire communications. Some courts have held that this law may be used to punish violations of copyright laws, such as unauthorized copying of computer programs. The law provides for fines and prison sentences. Where the subject of the fraud is a financial institution, the fines can reach seven figures.

Copyright Act

Another remedy is the Copyright Act, which applies to Internet thefts of copyrighted property including computer programs and other works. Software piracy, in fact, has been one of the most expensive crimes perpetrated over the Internet. This is, in large part, because of the ease with which information may be duplicated and retransmitted using interconnected computers. The Copyright Act prohibits willful duplication of copyrighted works and provides fines and other penalties that increase in severity for repeated violations.

Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996

Child pornography is a crime of serious concern that has expanded in the Internet age. Creating or displaying child pornography has long been illegal, but to combat it in the Internet environment, Congress has created special laws. The Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996 criminalizes the production, distribution and reception of electronic images featuring sexual depictions of children. The law provides for fines and imprisonment, with higher maximum penalties for individuals with a criminal record involving sexual abuse or child pornography. This law, which includes sexual images of adults doctored to resemble children, has been challenged on constitutional grounds. Another act, the Communications Decency Act, which also addressed child pornography, was struck down in part by the Supreme Court. The provisions the Court rejected covered "indecent" and "patently offensive" materials, which are entitled to higher First Amendment protection than obscene materials.

Electronic Communications Privacy Act

To address interception of wire and electronic communications, Congress enacted the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). It also punishes unauthorized access to or alteration of electronically stored information, as well as efforts to prevent authorized access to such information. This law, like the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, may be used to combat computer hackers. It has seen further use as a way to punish unauthorized reception of encrypted satellite television broadcasts. The ECPA allows punishment by fine or a short period of imprisonment.

Summary

The problem of crime conducted over the Internet is a vexing one for its victims and for law enforcement. It is easier to commit a crime using the Internet than it is to punish the perpetrator of the crime. As a result, governments must develop new ways to prevent and punish Internet crime. This will involve new legislation as well as new applications and amendments for existing laws. At the same time, it is important that law enforcement efforts not impede lawful conduct by companies or individuals. Sometimes the government's purposes run counter to those of the business community, as in the case of encryption. Companies would like to have sound encryption technology to protect Internet transactions. The government, however, is concerned such technology will allow criminal activity to escape detection. There are also serious privacy and free speech concerns on which government and individuals may take different positions. Regulating Internet crime effectively will require continued development of laws and enforcement practices.