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Judges find computer ban illegal

A U.S. appeals court rules that a man convicted of receiving child porn over the Internet should not be restricted from using computers after his jail term.

A federal appeals court panel has ruled that banning a man convicted of child porn charges from using computers is an unfair restriction on his liberties.

In this case, George Sofsky pleaded guilty to receiving child porn over the Internet. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and was banned from using a computer and surfing the Internet without permission during the probationary period following his jail term.

However, a panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the ban "inflicts a greater deprivation on Sofsky's liberty than is reasonably necessary."

The court likened banning computer use to prohibiting people who conduct crimes via phone or mail from using those communication methods. "A total ban on Internet access prevents use of e-mail, an increasingly widely used form of communication," the court wrote in an opinion issued last week.

The court said that instead the government should consider using sting operations and unannounced inspections of Sofsky's computers to ensure he isn't viewing child porn.

As the world becomes more wired, restricting Internet use among those convicted of computer crimes has become a highly contentious issue. So far, courts have issued mixed rulings on the matter. A few years ago, when computers were less common in everyday life, prosecutors and judges came under fire for prohibiting hackers including Kevin Mitnick from using computers as part of their sentences. Supporters of efforts to rehabilitate hackers said computer-related jobs would provide the opportunity for them to walk the straight and narrow and earn a decent paycheck while doing it.

But this latest opinion may indicate that judges are acknowledging the increasingly pervasive use of computers in heretofore unexpected places.

For example, an ever-expanding array of jobs--from grocery store checkout clerk to department store salesperson--involve daily contact with computers. What's more, performing simple tasks such as paying at the gas pump requires interacting with network-connected machines.