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Banned from the Web

In 1995, a United States District Court in Texas sentenced Chris Lamprecht to 70 months in federal prison for money laundering. Because Lamprecht was a known computer hacker, Judge Sam Sparks also banned him from "the Internet or any computer network" after his release from prison — making Lamprecht the first American to be judicially ...

In 1995, a United States District Court in Texas sentenced Chris Lamprecht to 70 months in federal prison for money laundering. Because Lamprecht was a known computer hacker, Judge Sam Sparks also banned him from "the Internet or any computer network" after his release from prison — making Lamprecht the first American to be judicially banned from the Internet.

Experts are unsure how many additional people have been booted off the Internet since Lamprecht’s case, but the number is likely increasing as U.S. and foreign courts prosecute a growing number of computer crimes. In the last year, courts in Australia, Britain, Canada, and the United States have all banned people from the Internet. "The more cases, the more bans," says Jennifer Granick, a lawyer who has defended hackers and is executive director of the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University. The U.S. Department of Justice disposed of 631 computer crime cases in 2001, up from 137 in 1995 (for a sampling, see www.justice.gov/criminal/cybercrime/cccases.html).

Court-ordered computer or Internet bans are typically imposed during "supervised release," normally a three- to five-year period after a convicted criminal serves jail time but is still under a probation officer’s control. If the bans sound hard to enforce, it’s because they are. "I proved that," says Lamprecht, "as [I] violated my ban almost every day for a year." The problem, as Granick puts it, is that "most judges aren’t very tech savvy." Neither are probation officers, apparently. "One time," Lamprecht recalls, "my probation officer even did a surprise check, came in my apartment and inspected my computer for a telephone cable or modem. He didn’t find one. I was online…but I had broadband and not a modem." Some courts are now tailoring Internet bans to specific online activities. For instance, a British pedophile recently became the first person there to be barred specifically from Internet chatrooms (for 10 years).

Granick and other lawyers have challenged Internet bans based on freedom of speech and additional constitutional rights. So far, they’ve failed. But Granick isn’t too worried about the precedent these cases set for the future: "I predict that as judges begin to see that the computer isn’t a novelty, but is an everyday apparatus like the telephone, we’ll see a lot fewer computer-use restrictions."

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