Can legal changes prevent another Aaron Swartz tragedy?

Can legal changes prevent another Aaron Swartz tragedy?

Summary: Under intolerable legal pressure, brilliant, but depressed, hacker and Internet freedom advocate Aaron Swartz took his own life. We should strive to prevent this from happening to anyone else.

Aaron Swartz (1986 - 2013)

I didn't know Aaron Swartz well. I just knew him well enough to be impressed. Swartz was one of the creators of Reddit, Creative Commons, and the RSS (Really Simple Syndication) protocol. Hounded by depression, faced with mounting legal bills and a potential sentence of dozens of years in prison for allegedly trying to take MIT academic journal articles public, this brilliant young man took his own life. Swartz was 26.

His friend, and well-known open-source and intellectual property attorney, Lawrence "Larry" Lessig, wrote, "If what the government alleged was true—and I say 'if' because I am not revealing what Aaron said to me then—then what he did was wrong. And if not legally wrong, then at least morally wrong."

But, "For the outrageousness in this story is not just Aaron. It is also the absurdity of the prosecutor’s behavior. From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. The 'property' Aaron had 'stolen,' we were told, was worth 'millions of dollars'—with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime. But anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar. It was clear what this was not, yet our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed."

Indeed Swartz's "crimes" were that he allegily used MIT's computer network to download millions of academic articles from the online academic papers archive JSTOR,  without authorization. For that, he faced 13 felony counts of hacking and wire fraud (PDF Link). I must agree with Swartz's family and partner who claim "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. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims."

We can't bring Swartz back to life. We can, however, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) suggests, reform the anti-hacker laws, which enabled the witch-hunt that led to Swartz's suicide. We can stop prosecution for other victimless hacker crimes. 

The EFF believes there are two profound flaws in the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Together, they were used to hound Swartz and they are still being used to unfairly attack others.

The first problem is that "Hacking laws are too broad, and too vague" Among other things, the CFAA makes it illegal to gain access to protected computers 'without authorization' or in a manner that 'exceeds authorized access.' Unfortunately, the law doesn't clearly explain what a lack of 'authorization' actually means. Creative prosecutors have taken advantage of this confusion to craft criminal charges that aren't really about hacking a computer but instead target other behavior the prosecutors don't like."

Therefore, "It's time for Congress to amend the CFAA to clarify what counts as access 'without authorization' and what doesn't. This will help ensure prosecutors can't use the law to bring arbitrary cases against people they simply don't like."

The second problem, and this is where the law really falls apart as far as I'm concerned, is that "The penalty scheme for CFAA violations is 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 (ten years for repeat offenses) plus fines. It's worth nothing that five years is a relatively light maximum penalty by CFAA standards; violations of other parts of that law are punishable by up to ten years, 20 years, and even life in prison."

Indeed, had he lived and been convicted, Swartz would have faced a maximum of $4 million in fines and more than 50 years in prison. While AllThingsD reports that Carmen Ortiz, U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts, said about the the case that, "Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data, or dollars," it's incomprehensible to me that stealing academic documents deserves felony prosecution leading to years of imprisonment and millions of dollars in fines.

As the EFF declared, "No prosecutor should have tools to threaten to end someone's freedom for such actions, but the CFAA helped to make that fate a realistic fear for Aaron." Thus, the EFF is asking you to write to your Congressional Representative or Senator asking that this law be changed so that no others need face this kind of draconian prosecution. I urge you do so.

It's too late for Swartz, let's strive to make sure it's not too late for others.

Related Stories:

Topics: Security, Legal, Social Enterprise

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Has it been shown the legal issues were the single cause of his suicide?

    I ask, because this is the assumption many people seem to be making. That the legal issues alone is what caused Aaron to take his own life and if you take away that single issue in his life and he would have happiness. I think that this is far from the truth and the legal issues were simply one (and minor at that) of many issues in a life filed with depression and pain that led to Aaron taking his own life.

    Much like Vincent Van Gosh, Aaron displayed a unique brilliance (I mean RSS protocol at 14? Dude, that is brilliant beyond measure) but also suffered from a mind that battled him every day to find happiness. It is easy to vilify a single entity (the government or the prosecutor) to place blame on a tragedy no one but Aaron understands. But is that right?
    • No of course not. Neither the fines nor the time.

      And the smarter you are the less the impact of these would be. This is typical liberal "do something" reaction. Just like all the gun control blather despite all the scientific statistical data to the contrary. Time to switch your brains back on people.
      Johnny Vegas
      • As opposed to the republican "do nothing" reaction?

        Did you think of that zinger all by yourself? Bravo. Now finish your breakfast of industrial paint chip cereal...
        • There is always

          at least one idiot there to pull political parties into ANY discussion.
      • Gun Control "blather"?

        Look at the European/Asian murder rates from guns as compared to the USA - while you're at it, cite some real scientific proof to the contrary to back up your claim. After you remove your alleged brain from that deep dark place, also REALLY take a look at the 2nd amendment. You will see that it does not give citizens the absolute "right" to arm themselves to the teeth with fully automativ/semi-automatic weapons for "protection". While it is certainly true that knives & baseball bats can kill, the overwhelming majority of murders are caused by handguns in this country - and handguns were made for one purpose alone - to kill. As soon as our moron politicians & our moron population can really use logic to form ideas (the 80/20 theory - 80% of the population are uneducated, unthinking sheep while only 20% actually "get it"), maybe we will see some intelligence & intelligent decision-making. Until then, which I doubt I'll ever see, we, as a country who does not respect life from the unborn to the aged, will continue to cater to the lowest common denominator & will continue to descend back into the dark ages.
      • You're the example of that I'm totally searching for, too!

        That being: "Time to switch your brains back on, people."

        You forgot the comma.

        Does empathy mean much to you? Ever?
    • I would agree

      I would agree - there are likely many people facing similar charges - many people who don't commit suicide.

      It's my honest opinion that there were likely a lot of factors outside of this legal case that contributed to his suicide, and that while perhaps it may have been the straw that broke the camel's back, it was unlikely the only thing in his life causing his depression.
    • The law has nothing to do with it.

      Aaron was depressed and impulsive. If his intent was to spread information he could have gone about it far more diplomatically. If his intent was to stand up for his ideals then he should have stood up and faced the charges bravely. Unfortunately he did not have the mental fitness to do that. Without proper mental health care Aaron would have found some reason or another to push himself over the edge regardless of these legal charges.
      • Poor excuse for a response

        What the heck its not the anguish the dread that affects his mind oh no. He would of done it anyway what the heck. So what then huh? Hmmm
        Is not the real issue not this mans state of mind but the grotesque condition of his suffering? What he stood for is still true no matter what form of personal attack.
        • Another empathetic person!

          There is so little of it these days. And people die.
          Thank you for being part of the caring part of humanity instead of the critical-analytical part, which the Cobras and Johnny Vegas's revel in.
          "Is not the real issue not this man's state of mind but the grotesque condition of his suffering? What he stood for is still true no matter what form of personal attack."
          Exactly right!!
    • No

      Hence the phrase about his depression.

  • The focus is on the wrong people

    This is the most troubling fact of them all:

    One of the most sinister sides of this story is how all these copyleftist gurus like Lawrence Lessig, Cory Doctorow, and John Perry Barlow in fact weren't really taking up his cause directly, to the end, even though in fact they had egged him on ever since they first began to mentor him when he was a young teenager. Lessig said he "crossed a line" and wouldn't jeopardize his own credentialed positions in order to back his protegee. Same for the others. They talked a good game but didn't go to the mat.

    Perhaps the "truth" is that the PC Internet all should be free "elders" were grossly taking advantage of a brilliant but disturbed young man. He got the dirty work and the problems. They got the platitudes. But then well they did not count on suicide. Now they need to blame ... blame anyone but themselves.

    Aaron may be gone because these "elders" would not dare to do what they encouraged him to do. They are trying to create a martyr to cover up their own negligence and self centeredness.

    This is indeed a scandal, but of a very different kind than the media has thus far chosen to portray... for the sinners are the media's own heroes ... and the guilt is beyond their ability to deal with.
  • I don't get the outcry

    Was it legal for this guy to take all these millions of documents? If so, then yes there is a problem with the prosecutor adn I do get the outcry. If not, what's the problem? Don't blame the prosecutor or law enforcement for doing their job! Blame the guy for stealing stuff that wasn't his. It's like getting mad at a cop for giving you a speeding ticket when your were in fact speeding and you claim they had no business bothering you, and then the next day someone blows by you on the road and you scream there's never a cop around. But is this "really" the "only" reason this guy was depressed? I have to think not and there is a lifetime of reasons everyone is ignoring for why he committed suicide.
    • well, that's a tricky question . . .

      "Was it legal for this guy to take all these millions of documents?"

      Well, that's a tricky question - they charged him with wiretapping, not just "stealing" as Steven would like you to believe.

      Basically, he hooked up to one of their machines and started downloading stuff from it. While it is arguable as to whether it really deserved felony charges, I think it was still clearly the wrong thing to do.

      "But is this 'really' the 'only' reason this guy was depressed?"

      I seriously, seriously doubt it. It may have been the straw that broke the camel's back, but he had to be having mental issues to begin with for a court case to lead him to suicide.
  • a very good article

    Thanks, Steve.
    What a crazy and criminalized this criminal justice really is! 30 years in prison, millions of dollars in fine for a reckless yet bold and altruistic action? Do we live under some kind of Stalinist regime, where you could get 15 years term for "stealing" just a few ears of wheat?
  • He knew the law, yet chose to ignore the consequences

    One as brillient as he should have understood that when breaking the law, the owners will come after you. You blame the prosecutor, MIT, and others, yet he made the choices that got him where he was.

    Arrogance, as Steven should know, often leads to places where the arrogant never intended to go.

    Activision is a dangerous life style. If you can't handle the heat that your opponents will pile on, don't do it.

    To top that off, downloading those articles without authorization is theft. Theft of research owned by others. His intent to distribute or not is of little importance here. There mere downloading violated the law.

    As an activist, he knew what he was doing, otherwise, he was no genious, just someone in way over their head.

    I do not revel in his death, it is a sad thing. However, blaming those that he wronged is simply wrong.

    Civil disobedience bears a hard price.
    • Research owned by who exactly.

      The wheels of freedom are lubricated with the blood of patriots. Who owns it. the people who wrote it do not benefit do they. The people who paid for its creation must pay to access? Who in fact was wronged and explain for everyone why that is so. To crush and obliterate any part of anyone life for such an act is not the intention of an American kind. If there is monetary damages why did they not sue him?
      • Wow, that is an incredibly powerful response!!

        I read it twice, then again. Cynical99 exemplifies the cowardice of the current age, in the light of your comment.
        Well done! Bloody brilliant, even! Who indeed owns freedom? Those who "KNOW right from wrong"? or those who are altruistic then realise the rest of those who they stood up for are cowering in the wings? Freedom today is a tiny word. It's a vague concept. When you talk about 'free software', for example, everyone assumes 'no-cost'.
      • And Your Point?

        There's a old adage "Don't do the crime if if you can't do the time". It is not remotely possible that Aaron Swartz was not aware of the law and that his actions were in violation of it. As such, he made a conscious decision to do so and neither he nor you have any grounds for complaint as a result.

        This is not to say the law is necessarily properly drawn, sets penalties commensurate with the offenses and was properly applies. That is a separate matter and perhaps Aaron Swartz suicide might spark a reevaluation of the law.

        However, one cannot violate a law and then complain when it is applied. If one does so as protest, one must expect the consequences. That is a large part of what activism entails. That Aaron Swartz allegedly could not handle them is a tragedy, but one of his own making.
  • Something needs to be done

    The Copywrong laws and the insane attacks against hackers have been a long standing problem on the internet for nearly 2 decades. Anyone who says Aaron Swartz did not commit suicide because of this case are flat out lying to themselves. It doesn't take a rocket scientist nor a technology genius to figure out why he would have done this just before his trial. The DOJ, FBI, Secret Service, have been using heavy handed tactics against any online activism for some time now. This has to stop. The Constitution guarantees people the right to assemble and protest. It does not care where that assembly and protest takes place. Problem is the Government at large is trying to create a system in cyberspace that says our rights do not apply here. That is completely unacceptable and anti Constitutional. I for one demand something be done about this. I am tired of the Justice System demanding ethics of the people while they themselves have proven time and time again that they have no ethics for themselves.