Reform Draconian Computer Crime Law

This post originally appeared on the Electronic Frontier Foundation site.

The tragic death of Aaron Swartz, a 26-year-old coder and social activist, has shined a light on the sad truth about America’s misguided computer crime law, the breadth of discretion given to overzealous prosecutors and the unjust results that can occur when these two things work together.

For instance, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) has vague language that broadly criminalizes accessing a computer without "authorization," but doesn't explain what that actually means. It also contains heavy-handed penalties and shows no regard for whether an act was done to further the public good. 

With Aaron Swartz, we saw the very real cost of these draconian laws: A young programmer and freedom fighter committed suicide rather than face the potential of years in prison for a victimless act performed out of the belief that all people — not just those in ivory towers or with financial means — deserve access to academic and scientific knowledge. 

While there are always many factors when someone takes their own life, the specter of being incarcerated for years should never have been one that haunted Aaron.

Over the past two years, Aaron was forced to devote much of his energy and resources to fighting a relentless and unjust felony prosecution brought by Justice Department attorneys in Massachusetts. His alleged crimes stemmed from using MIT's famously open computer network to download millions of academic articles from the online academic archive JSTOR, allegedly without "authorization."

For that, he faced 13 felony counts, mainly under the CFAA. The charges carried the possibility of decades in prison and crippling fines. 

Brilliant, talented, visionary people should be spending their time building our future, not worrying about wasting away in prison. Congress must start by updating the CFAA to ensure the penalties actually make sense in light of the behavior they're meant to punish.

“Be curious. Read widely. Try new things. I think a lot of what people call intelligence just boils down to curiosity.”

—Aaron Swartz, 1986–2013

Original photo by Flickr user Sage Ross

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good