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Someone is (legally) wrong on the Internet - Her Most Regal Majesty, the Queen of Snark
void where prohibited, except by law
Someone is (legally) wrong on the Internet
Lifehacker is a moderately interesting tips website. It's a little trite for my liking in that some of the tips are blindingly obvious or just plain dumb, but there are occasional gems, so I tend to look at an RSS feed when I'm out of Internet browsing material.

This, however, crosses the line from dumb to criminal. It is an article telling you how to fake being a student to get student discounts, including how to fraudulently modify student ID. This is a problem for anyone following this advice in that should they be caught doing so, they may well face criminal prosecution for fraud. It's possible that such an act would be de minimis, or, in lay terms, too piffling for the law to worry about. However, I know of a person who was in fact prosecuted for using someone else's bus season ticket, convicted of fraud, and it may well have put paid to their desire to have a legal career as a result. So the "advice" contained is both bad and dangerous.

Lifehacker is an American website, but if it were authored and published in the UK, things would get more interesting. Under the Serious Crimes Act 2007, it is an offence to assist or encourage the commission of a criminal offence. In order to be guilty of a crime under English law, you must both perform the illegal act, and also (broadly speaking) intend to do so. Lawyers call these two things the actus reus and mens rea of a crime. The actus reus in this case would be performing an act capable of assisting in the commission of an offence. This is obviously a very broad net, which is why mens rea is required as well, but explaining how to fraudulently modify student ID is quite clearly capable of encouraging and assisting the commission of fraud.

With regard to intent, this must have been done either with the intention that it would assist or encourage fraud, or a belief that it would do so. The fact that the article is provided on a tips website demonstrates this quite nicely. With respect as to whether anyone did carry out the act, it is sufficient to demonstrate that the accused was reckless or intended as to whether or not they did. Again, telling the entire internet is a slam dunk as to recklessness. The final element of mens rea is to demonstrate, at minimum, recklessness as to whether or not those assisted or encouraged would intend to commit fraud. (Convoluted, eh?) Again the tone of the article indicates that the author feels this form of fraud is acceptable and wishes to facilitate it.

So what conclusions can be drawn? Anyone within the UK posting this or similar advice on the Internet risks a criminal conviction by so doing. This means both that one should be very careful when discussing illegal activity on the Internet (and remember, ripping MP3s from a CD is technically illegal in this country), and secondly that the rule in English law relating to assisting and encouraging crime is (a) too bloody complex and (b) too bloody wide. I would be greatly surprised if anyone reading this journal has not at some point assisted or encouraged a crime. It also demonstrates that Lifehacker should be more cautious. Even though assisting and encouraging is not criminal in the US (as far as I know), they may potentially be liable in tort to someone who suffers detriment as a result of following such advice. Ignorance of the law may be no excuse, but giving negligent advice may well be actionable.

So why did you all get the benefit of this egregious expostulation? Lifehacker has moderated comments, and declined to publish my short "this is a silly idea, don't do it" comment.

It is a silly idea. Don't do it.
3 comments or Leave a comment
bellinghman From: bellinghman Date: December 3rd, 2010 03:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
Hmm, interesting.

Now, I can see how the use of someone else's season ticket is fraud: the carrier has been paid to carry that other person for a season, not you, and the ticket is an apparent proof of this. Therefore, one is gaining goods or services that one has not paid for, and for which others do have to pay.

Pretending to be a student to get a discount is less obviously fraud, since the discount is offered not to people who have paid some form of fee (well, absent current government policies coming to full fruition), but to any that are apparently part of a large group. Certainly the person doing the deception is doing so deliberately, and for gain, and that is probably the definition of fraud. But it feels more like the difference between stealing a book from a shop and downloading an MP3.

A similar class of action happens with pay-and-display car-parks - someone prepays for an hour of parking, but departs after 20 minutes. Is is fraud to accept their ticket and use the remaining 40 minutes?
sesquipedality From: sesquipedality Date: December 3rd, 2010 03:43 pm (UTC) (Link)
Asserting a fact one knows to be untrue in order to induce another party to enter into a contract that they would not otherwise enter into is pretty much a textbook definition of fraudulent misrepresentation. This is what you're doing when you falsely use student ID to get discounts.

It may not be a crime that many people would regard as terribly serious, but "I didn't think it was serious" would, I suggest, cut very little ice with the magistrate.

In practice, I suspect you're right in that someone is very unlikely to be prosecuted, but consider that some student discounts can be very substantial. Microsoft Office Student edition contains two Office Professional Plus licences, for a saving of over £600. It's difficult to see how that could be regarded as a trifling matter.

I think that the implications for people giving advice on how to circumvent restrictions imposed by law are actually more interesting than the consequences for individuals.

Edited at 2010-12-03 04:00 pm (UTC)
(Deleted comment)
sesquipedality From: sesquipedality Date: December 3rd, 2010 04:44 pm (UTC) (Link)
In contract law you can commit a fraud by conduct. Not sure if this transfers to criminal law or not.
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