EFF Defends Third Party Access to Social Data from Criminalization

I am not sure how I missed the news of Facebook’s suit against Power Ventures. Maybe I am going Facebook-blind from all the stories about its continuing efforts to erode away all of our expectations of privacy.

As EFF explains, Power Ventures makes a social messaging and info aggregator, a class of tools often popular among power users. It isn’t surprising that Facebook doesn’t like the siphoning of the personal data it holds on behalf of the user into some external dashboard. It isn’t clear whether Power Ventures uses blessed APIs or scrapes Facebook pages but that is immaterial to their complaint.

Facebook is trying to contend that the tool is a violation of its terms of services and should be considered a criminal act under California’s computer crime law. The former is a reasonable claim but the later is terribly dangerous if acknowledged by the judge.

Even the simple use of the automatic login feature of most browsers would constitute a violation under Facebook’s theory, since those services are “automatic means” for logging in. But the risk for users is even broader. If any violation of terms of use is criminal, users who shave a few years off their age in their profile, claim to be single when they are married, or change jobs or addresses without updating Facebook right away would also have violated the criminal law.

There have been some good precedents establishing limits on this sort of movement to criminalize an action already adequately covered under contract law. Unfortunately I think there are as many mixed rulings. There certainly has been a lot of argument around pressing for claims under computer crime laws, generally allowed by the vagueness of such laws. The waters are far muddier than they really should be.

EFF has filed an amicus brief to that effect. They actually go further than I think is strictly necessary, claiming that users have a right to their personal data. I agree but the priority is preventing the criminalization of exercising that right regardless of any civil breach of contract claim.

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