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Internet Crime

Internet crime is among the newest and most constantly evolving areas of American law. Although the Internet itself is more than three decades old, greater public usage began in the late 1980s with widespread adoption only following in the 1990s. During that decade the Net was transformed from its modest military and academic roots into a global economic tool, used daily by over 100 million Americans and generating upwards of $100 billion in domestic revenue annually. But as many aspects of business, social, political, and cultural life moved online, so did crime, creating new challenges for lawmakers and law enforcement.

Crime on the Net takes both old and new forms. The medium has facilitated such traditional offenses as fraud and child pornography. But it has also given rise to unique technological crimes, such as electronic intrusion in the form of hacking and computer viruses. High-speed Internet accounts helped fuel a proliferation of copyright infringement in software, music, and movie piracy. National security is also threatened by the Internet’s potential usefulness for terrorism. Taken together, these crimes have earned a new name: when FBI Director Louis J. Freeh addressed the U.S. Senate in 2000, he used the widely-accepted term “cybercrime.”

Lawmakers have scrambled to keep up with cybercrime. The skyrocketing growth of Internet usage and the rapid advance of technology quickly revealed the inadequacy of existing laws, particularly those drafted to fight computer crime in the mid-1980s. In the 1990s, headlines frequently announced high-profile cyber crimes such as the estimated $80 million in damages caused by the nationwide outbreak of the computer virus Melissa in 1999, unauthorized intrusion into military computer systems, and brazen hacker attacks that ranged from denying service to major corporate websites to defacing U.S. government websites of the CIA, FBI, and others. Simultaneously, the computer software industry announced massive losses due to piracy, $12 billion in 1999 alone, according to the Washington-based Business Software Association (BSA), the leading U.S. software industry watchdog. Regarding these concerns, Congress acted repeatedly. Its legislative response ranges from provisions governing hacking, viruses, and denial of service attacks to fraud, obscenity, copyright infringement, and terrorism.

  • The Counterfeit Access Device and Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1984 launched federal cybercrime law. The law safeguarded classified government information as well as certain financial information stored digitally, while also creating offenses for malicious damage of computer systems and trafficking in stolen computer passwords. It was superseded by the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986, which was amended significantly in 1994, 1996, and 2001, and remains the backbone of federal Internet law.
  • The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 was passed to prevent the unauthorized interception of digital communications and later amended to specifically bar unauthorized reading of e-mail by third parties, network operators, and Internet access providers.
  • The National Information Infrastructure Protection Act of 1996 expanded the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Amendments covered the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of computer networks, essentially broadening the definition of computer hacking punishable under federal law.
  • The No-Electronic Theft Act (NET Act) of 1997 tightened restrictions on the reproduction and dissemination of copyrighted intellectual property like software, music, and movies, while the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998 prohibited the circumvention of copyright protection systems.
  • The Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996 criminalized the dissemination of obscene or indecent material to children over computer networks. It was ruled unconstitutional under the First Amendment in 1997.
  • The Child Online Protection Act (COPA) of 1998 modified the scope of the CDA by criminalizing the use of the World Wide Web to sell material harmful to minors. It, too, was ruled unconstitutional in a case that has since been granted review by the Supreme Court.
  • The Protection of Children from Sexual Predators Act of 1998 included Internet-specific provisions for reporting child pornography to authorities and prohibiting federal prisoners from unsupervised Internet usage.
  • The Patriot Act of 2001 was passed in response to terrorist attacks upon the United States. Modifying the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, it provides new investigative powers to the U.S. attorney general to order monitoring of Internet communication and usage for the purpose of protecting national security.

Inside Internet Crime