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Communications of the ACM

Law and Technology

Do the Right Thing

faceless figure wearing a hoodie in front of a laptop computer, illustration

Credit: Fandijki

Acting ethically means following the law, except when it does not. Laws are not automatically right, and they are never neutral. The legal system favors those who already have power.1 And what is criminal often says more about society's biases and foibles than any underlying or consistent moral truth.2

This may seem like a radical claim. But computing professionals know firsthand that sometimes the law stands in the way of doing what is right. For decades they have struggled with anti-"hacking" laws that seemed to prohibit socially vital work. Instead of being celebrated for finding security vulnerabilities, for uncovering hidden discrimination, or for making consumers' devices work better, they have been threatened with lawsuits or criminal prosecution. Some of them were chilled into silence by these threats. But others fought back. They challenged overbroad laws, in court and out. Some engaged in civil disobedience; others simply ignored the law altogether.


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