Protesters vs. Hackers


A New York Times story about E.U. anti-hacker legislation raises more questions than it answers.

The agreement [among E.U. justice ministers], reached last week, obliges all 15 member states to adopt a new criminal offense: illegal access to, and illegal interference with an information system. It calls on national courts to impose jail terms of at least two years in serious cases.

Critics from the legal profession say the agreement makes no legal distinction between an online protester and terrorists, hackers and spreaders of computer viruses that the new laws are intended to trap.

Thus, the Times reports, an effort like last week's "virtual protest march" against war in Iraq, which involved sending thousands of e-mail messages to the White House and Senate, could be construed as "illegal interference with an information system" if it occurred within the E.U. According to one critic, the legislation "criminalizes behavior which, until now, has been seen as lawful civil disobedience."

"Lawful civil disobedience"? Isn't that a contradiction in terms? Maybe he means "nonviolent"?

The issue is not clarified by the European Parliament deputy from Italy who "said he failed to persuade the ministers to insert wording that differentiates between the online equivalent of trespassing and someone breaking and entering." In what sense is sending an e-mail message "the online equivalent of trespassing"? And if it is, shouldn't it be criminal? Is the point just that the penalty should not be as severe? Or that it should be legal, provided you have a good motive?

The headline–"Europe Hacker Laws Could Make Protest a Crime"–had me primed to be outraged. After reading the article, I'm merely annoyed–and not at the E.U.