Is Distributing Spyware a Crime?

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A measure passed by the House of Representatives would make distributing spyware a criminal offense punishable by fines and even a jail sentence.

The approval of the I-SPY (Internet Spyware Prevention) Act comes on the heels of another spyware bill, SPY ACT (Securely Protect Yourself Against Cyber Trespass). Also passed by the House last week, SPY ACT would make computer technology that downloads programs onto users' computers without their permission, commonly known as spyware, illegal. Both bills still need Senate approval.

SPY ACT also would make it illegal to hijack control of a computer, expose users to pop-up ads that can't be closed, modify users' personal settings, and download personal information without permission.

I-SPY adds criminal penalties for people who violate the laws outlined in the two bills. Under the proposal, violators would be subject to fines and up to five years in prison.

"This legislation will help deter the use of spyware, and will thus help protect consumers from these aggressive attacks," says Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia), the bill's sponsor, in a statement.

"At the same time, the legislation leaves the door open for innovative technology developments to continue to combat spyware programs," Goodlatte adds.

Similar Proposal

A separate bill called the SPY BLOCK (Software Principles Yielding Better Levels of Consumer Knowledge) Act passed the Senate Commerce Committee on September 22. Although the bill contains provisions similar to those in SPY ACT and I-SPY, there are no plans yet to reconcile the differences between the two bills.

"At this point I just don't have any indication of what the Senate is going to do," says Kathryn Rexrode, a spokesperson for Goodlatte.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), chairman of the House Energy Committee, which sent the SPY ACT bill to the full House for a vote, said last week that he would push the Senate for quick passage before Congress adjourns. But given that Congress appears preoccupied with an intelligence reform bill, it may not reach an agreement on the spyware bills before adjourning for this session.

If so, the bills would need to be reintroduced at the beginning of the next session and agreed to again by both chambers to become law.

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