WASHINGTON —The United States Supreme Court today issued an opinion in Van Buren v. United States, a case involving the scope of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University joined an amicus brief in the case that was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in July 2020.

The following can be attributed to Alex Abdo, litigation director of the Knight First Amendment Institute:

“This is an important and welcome decision that will help protect digital research and journalism that is urgently necessary. But more is needed. Congress should amend the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act to eliminate any remaining uncertainty about the scope of the statute. It should also create a safe harbor for researchers and journalists who are working to study disinformation and discrimination online. Major technology companies should not have a veto over research and journalism that are manifestly in the public interest.”

The CFAA makes it a crime to “access[] a computer without authorization, or exceed[] authorized access, and thereby obtain[] ... information from any protected computer.” The Department of Justice and several courts had interpreted this language expansively to criminalize accessing information on a computer for an “improper purpose.” Today’s decision rejects that interpretation, holding that the statute “covers [only] those who obtain information from particular areas in the computer—such as files, folders, or databases—to which their computer access does not extend.”

In their amicus brief, the Knight Institute and the ACLU warned that a broad interpretation of the CFAA would have significant ramifications for digital researchers and journalists. To understand the impact of social media and other online platforms on society, these researchers rely on the basic tools of digital research, including the automated collection of public data and the creation of temporary research or tester accounts. But many prominent platforms prohibit the use of these tools through their terms of service. An expansive reading of the CFAA would make it a crime for researchers and journalists to access platforms in ways that violate the platform’s terms of service, even if the investigations they’re conducting are manifestly in the public interest. The Court’s decision rejects the government’s broad interpretation of the CFAA, although it leaves unanswered certain questions relating to how the CFAA applies to those who access a website in violation of a company’s terms of service.

Read today’s decision here.

Read the Knight Institute’s amicus brief here.

For more information, contact: Lorraine Kenny, Communications Director, [email protected]