Proxy servers could violate hacking law

Using a proxy server to visit a site that has banned you could violate US law according to a court ruling. But that matter hasn’t yet been settled, and it may not apply to cases where it’s the site that has been blocked.

The case involves a dispute between Craigslist and a company called 3Taps which had been scraping data from apartment listings on Craigslist for use on Padmapper (pictured), a tool that showed the listings on a map to make searching easier.

Craigslist had unsuccessfully sued 3Taps for copyright violation, with a court ruling that the copyright on listings info belonged to the posters, not to the site itself. However, Craiglist has also formally banned 3Taps from accessing its site and blocked connections from the relevant IP addresses.

When 3Taps continued collecting the data, either by changing IP address or through proxy servers, Craigslist brought a case under the 1984 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. That bars people from accessing a computer without permission. Craigslist argued that although its website is publicly available, by defying its ban 3Taps was accessing its server computers knowing it was not authorized to do so.

3Taps filed a request for the court to dismiss the case out of hand. This led to both sides using physical analogies: 3Taps arguing that a public website was like a store that anyone can enter and Craigslist countering that it was more like a store owner having the right to ban people from entering or returning.

The judge ruled that the case wasn’t clearcut enough to dismiss and instead that it can proceed to trial if Craiglist pursues the issue. He rejected 3Taps’ claim that the Craigslist interpretation of the law could criminalize innocent browsers, ruling that the level of intent 3Taps showed in defying the ban meant this was a different situation.

The judge also made a point of stressing that he was ruling on the law as it stood and that any debate about whether the law was fair or appropriate to today’s Internet is a matter for Congress.

Although some reaction to the ruling has been excitable, it’s not necessarily as severe as it seems for web users. Even if Craigslist’s argument does hold up at trial, it likely wouldn’t affect cases where individuals users switch IP addresses or uses proxies to access a site that has been restricted by their ISP, for example because of government censorship.

In theory, Craiglist’s interpretation of the law could cover cases where a user tries to get round regional blocking by sites such as Netflix. However, it appears the onus would be on the site to pursue legal action against the user, something that wouldn’t usually be in its interests.

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