As the Internet activist, inventor and alleged criminal Aaron Swartz was memorialized in a Chicago-land synagogue yesterday, on the other side of the country a new bill was proposed aimed at reducing the penalties for Internet hackers. Facing a fine of up to $1 million and as many as 35 years in prison for computer fraud, Swartz, a co-founder of Reddit, took his own life last Friday. His family blames their son's suicide on the stress incurred by the Federal government's constant hounding. The new bill could help prevent tragedies like this from happening again.
"Aaron's Law" is an attempt to reform a law some call draconian. Drafted by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and released on Reddit, the bill attempts to limit the government's sweeping authority when it comes to wire fraud statutes and the outdated, 27-year-old Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).
Swartz was facing an April court date for 13 counts of hacking and wire fraud stemming from breaking into MIT's network and downloading files.
In a blog post written Monday in the wake of Swartz' passing, Marcia Hoffman, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), contended that hacking laws are far too broad and vague. And because of that, the Feds had the legal justification to go after Swartz so hard. She says the young man who invented the RSS feed wasn't the super-hacker the government made him out to be.
The other major problem with the law, as presently stated, is extremely harsh penalties: "The government should never have thrown the book at Aaron for accessing MIT's network and downloading scholarly research," Hoffman wrote Monday. "Even first-time offenses for accessing a protected computer 'without authorization' can be punishable by up to 5 years in prison... plus fines."
The new law would serve to amend the CFAA "to exclude certain violations of agreements or contractual obligations, relating to Internet service, from the purview of certain criminal prohibitions." Those include computer fraud to the effect that accessing a computer network without explicit permission is not the "sole basis for determining that access to a protected computer is unauthorized.’’
What it all means is that if such a bill were enacted into law, a person in Aaron's position might not suffer the same fate as he did. The simple act of unauthorized access would not give prosecutors enough legal ground for the government to go full-tilt and make a case.
On Tuesday on Reddit, Rep. Lofgren pledged her support to make the bill a reality, and expressed her desire to prevent future tragedies like Aaron Swartz's from occurring.
"His family's statement about this speaks volumes about the inappropriate efforts undertaken by the U.S. government," Lofgren wrote yesterday 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."
Photo courtesy of Peretzp.