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Do You "Possess" What You View Online?

• http://www.popsci.com,By Dan Nosowitz

In a ruling yesterday, the New York Court of Appeals dismissed several counts of possession of child pornography charged to college professor James D. Kent, after a computer he brought to university IT for anti-virus service was found to contain child pornography in its browser cache.

For those specific counts--he's still going to jail on other, related charges--Kent was found to have not committed an "affirmative act" such as downloading, saving, or printing the image files in order to "possess" them; rather, they were passively saved by his browser in its hidden cache.

This may sound like a minute technicality, but it's in fact a revealing comment on the way we consume today's web. It all comes down to one very new problem: the concept of what we "possess" online is based on the increasingly outdated concept of the digital "file." What happens to the law in a streaming, cloud-connected world? A world where here are no more "files"?

Throughout internet history to date, there has been a distinct difference between viewing and possessing. Looking at a Far Side cartoon on a Geocities web page is different than printing it out and thumb-tacking it to your cubicle door. Simple. But as connections have sped up, hardware has gotten faster, and the internet on our phones has become equally if not more usable than the one on our computers, that line has all but disappeared. When you have constant, high-speed and portable access to the entire internet--text, photo, video--why do you ever need to download it?  

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