In the wake of computer genius Aaron Swartz’ untimely death, some US lawmakers are advocating that the government make changes to the federal statutes that the hacker is alleged to have violated before taking his own life.
Swartz, 26, died last week of an apparent suicide. Had he lived, Swartz was expected to stand trial later this year to face a multitude of counts related to a laundry-list of so-called criminal activity the United States government alleged he engaged in. If convicted, Swartz stood to spend 35 years in prison.
Citing broad prosecutorial outreach, Aaron’s father said during his son’s funeral on Tuesday, “Aaron did not commit suicide but was killed by the government.”
The death of Aaron Swartz is an unfortunate catalyst to prompt discussion, but has proved to be a powerful one nonetheless. Only four days after his passing, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-California) announced on Reddit — a website that Swartz himself is credited with co-founding — that she’s proposing a series of changes to the US Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, or CFAA [PDF].
“As we mourn Aaron Swartz’s tragic death, many of us are deeply troubled as we learn more about the government’s actions against him,” she wrote Tuesday night. “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.”
According to Rep. Lofgren, the US government could make great strides in lessening the odds of another hacker suicide should they decide to make changes to the CFAA, a legislation first passed in 1986 that is largely considered antiquated by today’s technology standards.
“The government was able to bring such disproportionate charges against Aaron because of the broad scope of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and the wire fraud statute. 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,” she wrote.
“Using the law in this way could criminalize many everyday activities and allow for outlandishly severe penalties,” Lofgren said.
In a Reddit post that has since spawned over 100 comments from users of the site, Lofgren links to her proposal — an amendment to the CFAA that would “exclude certain violations of agreements or contractual obligations, relating to Internet service, from the purview of certain criminal prohibitions.”
The changes, though minor, could make a world of difference, says the lawmaker. But while it is indeed a step towards the right direction in terms of avoiding another tragedy, some say Lofgren’s attempt is not enough to end the government’s witch-hunt against alleged criminals.
"It’s a great first step," Marcia Hoffman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation tells Forbes, "But if it’s trying to make sure what happened to Aaron can’t happen to someone else, it needs to do more."
In the article, penned by Forbes’ Andy Greenberg, both Hoffman and technology attorney Tor Ekeland suggest that the overly vague verbiage in the CFAA allows for the government to go after all too many targets.
“The [CFAA] is a prosecutor’s wet dream and a defendant’s nightmare,” Ekeland tells Greenberg.
On Reddit, Lofgren says, “this bill to amend CFAA and wire fraud statutes, which I would like to call ‘Aaron’s Law,’ should be enacted separately and swiftly. It could be an important tribute to him.” It had since gained the support of Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Harvard Law School who spoke highly of Swartz during Tuesday morning’s funeral service.
"Let's get this done for Aaron – now," Lessig wrote on Reddit.