On December 3, 2015, a divided panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals cleared Gilberto Valle, sensationally dubbed the “Cannibal Cop” by some in the media, of the two charges against him, conspiracy to commit kidnapping and a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). Although the kidnapping charge is certainly more lurid, the CFAA charge has wider implications for online freedom of speech and action, and highlights a division in the courts between those that interpret the law as making many if not most Internet users into federal criminals, and those that take a narrower view of the CFAA.
According to the court’s opinion, Valle was a New York City police officer with a penchant for spending time late at night in unusual corners of the Internet. Specifically, he was constructing elaborate fantasies with other users on a fetish forum in which they would kidnap, assault, kill, and eat various women with whom Valle was acquainted. These fantasies sometimes included some real information about the women (including their real pictures and at least partial real names) but also false or outlandish information about them or Valle, such as Valle’s claim to have an isolated cabin in the woods with a human-sized oven. The extent to which some of these fantasies might have crossed over into serious agreements or plans was the basis of the kidnapping conspiracy charge.