by Brian Leubitz
You’ve likely heard the tragic story of Aaron Swartz, the co-founder of Reddit and something of a legend as an internet activist. He helped found DemandProgress, and also worked with Lawrence Lessig’s RootStrikers. And all this before he turned 27. He committed suicide last week under mounting pressure that he would serve many years behind bars for his online exploits involving JSTOR, a journal database.
JSTOR ultimately declined to press any charges against Swartz, but the federal prosecutor thought otherwise. The case was fairly far along in the process, and plea talks had been going poorly before he took his life. Leaders like Mr. Lessig and others have called for changes to law and prosecutorial practice to avoid a similar situation in the future.
Yesterday Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) introduced legislation that would at least make clear that terms of service violations (ToS) aren’t the stuff of 30 year prison sentences.
As Swartz’s family and friends were grieving in Chicago, several Capitol Hill lawmakers expressed sadness and confusion over his death. One prominent U.S. lawmaker, Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), said she would introduce reforms to change the federal law at the heart of the case.
In a bill called “Aaron’s Law,” Lofgren aims to amend the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), which Massachusetts prosecutors used to charge Swartz with over 30 years in prison. Swartz’s family has accused the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office with hounding the young activist over what they call a “victimless crime.” Specifically, Lofrgen’s bill would amend the existing law to distinguish between a terms of service violation and a federal data theft crime. (Time)
At the same time another California Congress member, Rep. Darrell Issa has said that his House Oversight Committee would be reviewing the case.
“I’m not condoning his hacking, but he’s certainly someone who worked very hard,” Issa said. “Had he been a journalist and taken that same material that he gained from MIT, he would have been praised for it. It would have been like the Pentagon Papers.”
Issa said he didn’t have enough information to say whether the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts overprosecuted Swartz. He said he had dispatched an investigator to gather more facts.
The death of Aaron Swartz is a loss for the internet community, for innovation, and for our country.