Before his apparent suicide Friday, Internet activist Aaron Swartz was facing trial for allegedly stealing millions of scholarly journal articles from a digital archive at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Now, in the wake of his death, some of his supporters are calling for changes to the controversial law under which he was charged, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. They say prosecutors have widely invoked the 1980s-era statute to bring harsh criminal penalties for relatively minor offenses.
In a tribute to Swartz on Sunday, MSNBC host Chris Hayes said: “You should know his death is a good reason to revisit the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the law under which he was prosecuted, since it is far too broad."
Timothy B. Lee, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, wrote Saturday on the blog Ars Technica: “We should pay tribute to Aaron's memory by reforming the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act to prevent such disproportionate prosecutions from happening in the future."
Swartz, 26, was widely praised for his efforts to make information freely available online. Frustrated by the high cost of accessing scholarly journals, Swartz allegedly stole millions of academic articles from the nonprofit online database JSTOR by breaking into computer networks at M.I.T., prosecutors said. A reporter for The New York Times called him "a wizardly programmer" and an "Internet folk hero." The Wall Street Journal said his alleged theft of academic journals was considered "a Robin Hood-like stunt."
But the move got him into legal trouble. In July 2011, he was charged with multiple counts of wire fraud and computer fraud.
Swartz also suffered from depression, and the details of why he committed suicide remain unclear. But his supporters say his looming federal trial in April was a contributing factor. Over the weekend, his family attributed his death to federal prosecutors pursuing “an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims."
Since Swartz's death, a White House petition to remove Massachussetts U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz “for overreach in the case of Aaron Swartz” had gained more than 8,500 signatures. And MIT president Rafael Reif said Sunday that the university will begin an analysis of its involvement with the federal case against Swartz.
On Sunday evening, the Twitter account belonging to the whistle-blowing site Wikileaks took credit for crashing the websites of MIT and the Department of Justice.
"The US DoJ and MIT sites are down after complicity in bullying Aaron Swartz, friend of WikiLeaks, to death. #aaronswartz #wikileaks," the tweet said.
By 9:00 p.m. Sunday night, MIT's website was still unresponsive.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Massachusetts, which charged Swartz, declined to comment, citing a desire to “respect the privacy of the family.”
Prosecutors had charged Swartz under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a federal law passed in 1984 that makes it illegal to "intentionally access a computer without authorization or exceed authorized access." The law was created when the Internet was still in its infancy to crack down on computer hacking and critics say that it has not kept up with the modern era. They say its language is too vague, potentially criminalizing a host of benign online activities, such as visiting online shopping or online matchmaking sites at work.
Orin Kerr, a professor of law at the George Washington University Law School, has said the statute is “one of the most far-reaching criminal laws in the United States Code" and now “potentially regulates every use of every computer in the United States and even many millions of computers abroad."
In recent years, the Justice Department has applied the law to a variety of cases. In 2009, federal prosecutors charged Lori Drew with violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for allegedly bullying her daughter’s 13-year-old classmate on MySpace, causing her to commit suicide. By creating a fictional MySpace profile, Drew had violated the social networking site's terms of service, a violating of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
In another case, prosecutors cited the law to charge David Nosal in 2008 for persuading colleagues to download proprietary information from an employer’s computer before he left to start a competing business.
In April, a federal appeals court ruled that the government’s position “would make criminals of large groups of people who would have little reason to suspect they are committing a federal crime,” such as “playing games, shopping or watching sports highlights.”
The Obama administration has argued the law should not be changed. Richard Downing, deputy section chief for computer crime and intellectual property, told a House committee in 2011 removing parts of the law "could make it difficult or impossible to deter and punish serious threats from malicious insiders."
Sir Tim Berners Lee, Founder Of The World Wide Web
He <a href="https://twitter.com/timberners_lee/status/290140454211698689">tweeted</a>: “Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.”
Quinn Norton, Freelance Journalist And Swartz's Close Friend
"We used to have a fight about how much the internet would grieve if he died. I was right, but the last word you get in as the still living is a hollow thing, trailing off, as it does, into oblivion." Read more <a href="http://www.quinnnorton.com/said/?p=644">here</a>.
Danah Boyd, Social Media Researcher And Swartz's Friend
"What I feel right now is anger. I'm angry at Aaron, angry at the state, angry at MIT, angry at anti-hactivist sentiment & angry at myself." Read Boyd's full statement on Swartz's death <a href="http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2013/01/13/aaron-swartz.html">here</a>.
Cory Doctorow, Science Fiction Author And Swartz's Friend
"Whatever problems Aaron was facing, killing himself didn't solve them. Whatever problems Aaron was facing, they will go unsolved forever. If he was lonely, he will never again be embraced by his friends. If he was despairing of the fight, he will never again rally his comrades with brilliant strategies and leadership. If he was sorrowing, he will never again be lifted from it." Read more <a href="http://boingboing.net/2013/01/12/rip-aaron-swartz.html">here</a>.
Swartz Family Statement
“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.” Read more <a href="http://rememberaaronsw.tumblr.com/post/40372208044/official-statement-from-the-family-and-partner-of-aaron">here</a>.
Lawrence Lessig, Director Of The Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics At Harvard University
"The question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a 'felon.' For in the 18 months of negotiations, that was what he was not willing to accept, and so that was the reason he was facing a million-dollar trial in April -- his wealth bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge. And so as wrong and misguided and fucking sad as this is, I get how the prospect of this fight, defenseless, made it make sense to this brilliant but troubled boy to end it." Read more <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lawrence-lessig/aaron-swartz-suicide_b_2467079.html">here</a>.
JSTOR, Academic Archive
"We are deeply saddened to hear the news about Aaron Swartz. We extend our heartfelt condolences to Aaron’s family, friends, and everyone who loved, knew, and admired him. He was a truly gifted person who made important contributions to the development of the internet and the web from which we all benefit." Read more <a href="http://about.jstor.org/statement-swartz">here</a>.
L. Rafael Reif, MIT President
"I have asked professor Hal Abelson to lead a thorough analysis of MIT's involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in Fall 2010 up to the present. I have asked that this analysis describe the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took. I will share the report with the MIT community when I receive it." Read more <a href="http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2013/letter-on-death-of-aaron-swartz.html">here</a>.
Anonymous, Hacktivist Collective
On Sunday night, one day after Swartz's death, Anonymous knocked out Internet access at MIT, <a href="http://tech.mit.edu/V132/N61/anonymous.html" target="_hplink">according to The Tech</a>, a campus newspaper. Two MIT-affiliated websites were rewritten with the following message from the hacktivist group: "Whether or not the government contributed to his suicide, the government's prosecution of Swartz was a grotesque miscarriage of justice, a distorted and perverse shadow of the justice that Aaron died fighting for - freeing the publicly-funded scientific literature from a publishing system that makes it inaccessible to most of those who paid for it - enabling the collective betterment of the world through the facilitation of sharing - an ideal that we should all support." Read the full text of the hack <a href="http://gizmodo.com/5975646/anonymous-hacks-mit-in-aaron-swartzs-name">here</a>.
Danny O'Brien, Journalist And Swartz's Friend
"Ada [O'Brien's daughter] cried, then we hugged, then Ada suggested we have a goodbye party, with ice-cream and sprinkles and a movie, and make a board where we could pin all our memories. We laughed at how funny he was. Aaron taught her so well." Read more <a href="http://www.oblomovka.com/wp/2013/01/12/he-was-funny/">here</a>. <strong>Correction:</strong> This slide originally reported that Ada was Aaron Swartz's daughter, not Danny O'Brien's. The Huffington Post regrets this error.