Making It All Illegal

Most of us have had the experience, when we saw someone do something stupid or that we thought was wrong, of shaking our heads and lamenting that "there ought to be a law." Unfortunately, our legislators have taken our wish literally - more and more laws are being passed criminalizing every "bad" behavior, and I'm afraid that soon it's going to be as impossible for most people to go through life without committing a crime as it is to drive a car without ever committing a traffic violation.

This came to mind yesterday when I was filling out a form on the web. You know, the ones that you have to complete in order to access some sites? I never give my correct address and phone number in those forms; who knows who'll have access to that information? In many cases, the lists are sold to spammers - er, sorry: to advertisers. Another piece of info I don't give out casually is my date of birth, since that's prime information for identity thieves.

But as I typed in my fake info, I wondered whether someday in the near future it will be illegal to lie on web forms. Sound silly? I'm not so sure. Lying is becoming a crime in more and more circumstances, in more and more jurisdictions. It used to be that the only time you could go to jail for telling untruths was when you committed perjury (lying under oath) or engaged in a blatant con game. Now we have laws making it illegal to lie in all sorts of situations, from applying for a loan to applying for a job. Some states have outlawed claiming to have a diploma or degree you don't have. Does that mean the office manager who pretends to be a doctor when he's coming on to some lady in a bar can go to jail for it? Maybe, depending on how the law is written.

Now I'm not advocating dishonesty. Telling a lie usually results in way more trouble than it's worth and in most cases it's ethically wrong (although in some cases, brutal honesty can be ethically questionable, too). But this trend toward making it a criminal offense worries me. Not everything that's unethical or immoral should result in jail time. If you lie on your resume, your employer should be able to fire you. If you lie to your spouse too many times, he/she might (and probably should) leave you. If you lie on your credit card application, you ought to get the card yanked and your credit record affected. Heck, all of the above wronged parties should be able to sue you for compensation if they want. But should you be imprisoned for it?

As a former cop, I don't really think most police officers want to be in the business of rounding up all the folks who fudged a little about their former job titles or salaries or education. With serial killers, terrorists and child predators out there on the loose, I don't think government resources are best spent tracking down liars.

And it's not just the possibility of being taken downtown for giving a false phone number on a Web form that I'm worried about. This propensity to make everything illegal goes way beyond the bans on lying. We are increasingly turning to the criminal laws to punish every undesirable behavior. Smoking is illegal in more and more places; it's only a matter of time before it's banned outright and mere possession is made a crime. I hate cigarettes and don't allow them in my house or car - but I also hate the thought of the government putting nicotine addicts in jail. We've seen how well that works with those addicted to "harder" substances.

Having done a miserable job of waging the war on drugs, health advocates are now ramping up to declare war on "bad" food. They point to obesity statistics as justification and are already seeking to make fast food illegal. What's the next step? Raiding grandma's kitchen if she dares whip up a batch of evil fried hushpuppies for the grandkids?

What does all this have to do with technology? Computers and the Internet are prime fodder for our over-zealous lawmakers, and it's probably just a matter of time before this micro-management of our lives spreads further into the electronic frontier. Just last week, reports came out that FBI director Robert Mueller wants ISPs, social networks and search engines to log and store records of users' IP addresses for up to two years, and another proposal would require providers to record the identities of email correspondents, IM users and addresses of web pages visited. Of course, you can still use web browsers that encrypt the addresses of users and online sites - but will legislators soon make it illegal to use such technologies based on the theory that they can be used by terrorists and child predators? Given the trends in modern lawmaking, I'd say it's not just possible but probable.

What do you think? Is our society becoming over legislated to the point where the government will make criminals of us all? Should the government stay out of issues like lying to private parties (such as an employer) and let it be handled administratively or civilly?

Are you in favor of laws protecting people from themselves (such as bans on smoking in your own home or eating food that's not healthy) or do you think it's justified on the basis of health care costs for which society often must pick up the tab? Twenty years from now, will we still be able to surf the 'net freely, or will we be required to get a license and register every site we visit with the government? What other changes to the laws (for good or bad) do you foresee in the near future?

Tell us your opinions.