Jan. 16, 2013 at 6:44 PM ET
A California congresswoman says the federal law used to prosecute Internet activist Aaron Swartz should be changed to "prevent what happened to Aaron from happening to other Internet users."
Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat whose district includes Silicon Valley, floated her proposal for what is being called "Aaron's Law" on Reddit. "There's no way to reverse the tragedy of Aaron’s death, but we can work to prevent a repeat of the abuses of power he experienced," she wrote.
Swartz, 26, who helped create RSS as a teen, reportedly took his own life last Friday. His family and partner said in a statement that his death is "not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach."
A passionate advocate for making as much information public as possible on the Web, Swartz was under indictment by the federal government on charges of wire fraud and computer fraud. In an attempt to provide free access to JSTOR, a subscription service for science and literacy journals on MIT's network, he downloaded nearly the entire library of 4.8 million articles and documents to make it publicly available.
The government was prosecuting Swartz based on violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
"It looks like the government used the vague wording of those laws to claim that violating an online service’s user agreement or terms of service is a violation of the CFAA and the wire fraud statute," Lofgren said on Reddit. "Using the law in this way could criminalize many everyday activities and allow for outlandishly severe penalties."
Lofgren said a "simple way to correct this dangerous legal interpretation is to change the CFAA and the wire fraud statutes to exclude terms-of-service violations." She said she plans to introduce a bill, known as "Aaron's Law," that will do that, and will try to get both Democrats and Republicans to co-sponsor the bill.
Marcia Hofmann, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said in a blog post that the government "should never have thrown the book at Aaron for accessing MIT's network and downloading scholarly research. However, some extremely problematic elements of the law made it possible."
She also wrote that violations of the law are "harsh and disproportionate to the magnitude of offenses. Even first-time offenses for accessing a protected computer 'without authorization' can be punishable by up to five years in prison each (10 years for repeat offenses) plus fines. It's worth noting that five years is a relatively light maximum penalty by CFAA standards; violations of other parts of that law are punishable by up to 10 years, 20 years, and even life in prison."
Lawrence Lessig, professor of law and leadership at Harvard Law School, wrote Wednesday in The Atlantic that it was appropriate Lofgren first introduced her draft bill on Reddit, "a platform Aaron had helped to build."
The bill, he wrote, "would limit the scope of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and exclude 'crimes' that are nothing more than a breach of contract. Had that change been made before Aaron's death, the government's felony charges would likely have collapsed. Had the government's charges collapsed, Aaron Swartz, in my view, would still be frantically working to make the world a better place."