After Aaron Swartz’s death, Lofgren draft bill aims to change anti-hacking law

Some have called for changes and action after the suicide last week of Aaron Swartz, the open Internet activist who had been scheduled to face federal charges in a few months, accused of downloading millions of academic articles from an MIT database with the intent of distributing them free online. (See Quoted: Remembering Aaron Swartz and Tech and the law: Net activist nabbed…)

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., has drafted a bill that would make changes in the 1980s-era Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), an anti-hacking law she and others say was too broadly written. “All you could say is that a computer crime is doing something wrong with a computer that you weren’t supposed to do. When you write a crime that broad, the risk is it will be used too creatively by the Justice Department,” Stewart Baker, a lawyer and former Department of Homeland Security official, told the Wall Street Journal. With “Aaron’s Law,” Lofgren said she wants to exclude terms-of-service violations from the CFAA, which she said “could criminalize many everyday activities and allow for outlandishly severe penalties,” according to Hillicon Valley. Lofgren on Tuesday night posted a copy of the bill to Reddit, where it has sparked many comments already.

Federal prosecutors and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are accused of being overzealous — Swartz could’ve gone to prison for 35 years — and have received plenty of blame over the death of the 26-year-old, whose struggles with depression were well-known. At Swartz’s funeral yesterday, his dad, Robert, reportedly said, “Aaron was pushed to his death by his government and the most prominent technical institution in the world.”

What’s next for hackers and other activists like Swartz? Danah Boyd, who is among other things a Fellow of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, writes for Wired: “We should also fear the likelihood that Aaron will be turned into a martyr: an abstraction of a geek activist destroyed by the state. … So what I really hope comes out of this tragedy is some serious community reflection about the tactics of change-making and activism employed by geeks to combat abuses of power. … We can’t afford to allow powerful entities destroy our passionate savants.”


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  • Roger

    What a bunch of hooey! Making a martyr of a thief who seemed to understand that he was taking something that was not his yet was unwilling to face the current justice system is highly inappropriate.
    Citizens (including parents) do not have the right to declare their family members are being treated unfairly when the matter is not yet fully litigated. I regret their loss. They may have better used their resources to help get counseling for their son
    But to try to lionize those who have broken current law in the name of “freedom” is highly inappropriate. Change the law in ways that manage to protect property owned by others and which support greater openness and access where possible seems to be a better approach.

  • sd

    We can argue whether Swartz’s activities were legal or even if they merited being labeled as a felony. But suicide is not a rational reaction to being investigated by the courts/government. Swartz’s tendency toward depression existed before this incident and the degree of his reaction should not play into whether the investigation or potential punishment was too great.

  • Vernon

    Here’s a thought: don’t steal. I have know doubt he knew that he did not have the permission to acquire and circulate those works. Quit always trying to place the blame. Effing suck it up and accept responsibility.