This Essay argues that authorization to access a computer is contingent on trespass norms—shared understandings of what kind of access invades another person’s private space. Judges are unsure of how to apply computer trespass laws because the Internet is young and its trespass norms are unsettled. In the interim period before norms emerge, courts should identify the best rules to apply as a matter of policy. Judicial decisions in the near term can help shape norms in the long term. The remainder of the Essay articulates an appropriate set of rules using the principle of authentication. Access is unauthorized when the computer owner requires authentication to access the computer and the access is not by the authenticated user or his agent. This principle can resolve the meaning of authorization before computer trespass norms settle and can influence the norms that eventually emerge.
This essay closely examines the effect on free-expression rights when platforms such as Facebook or YouTube silence their users’ speech. The first part describes the often messy blend of government and private power behind many content removals, and discusses how the combination undermines users’ rights to challenge state action. The second part explores the legal minefield for users—or potentially, legislators—claiming a right to speak on major platforms. The essay contends that questions of state and private power are deeply intertwined. To understand and protect internet users’ rights, we must understand and engage with both.