Swartz's Suicide Prompts Group to Try to Reform Computer Fraud Laws
A week after 26-year-old Highland Park native and internet activist Aaron Swartz committed suicide, his supporters and family are seeking to change the way the government prosecutes the computer crimes he was charged with.
Highland Park native Aaron Swartz, 26, was remembered this week as a brilliant, compassionate mind who inspired friends and family, as well as a victim of unfair treatment by the government.
Swartz, who commited suicide Jan. 11, co-created the social news website Reddit and founded Demand Progress, an organization devoted to Internet activism and fighting expanded government oversight of the Internet, according to CNN.
Demand Progress is currently looking to mobilize grassroots and political support to "end prosecutorial abuses" and "amend computer fraud law," according to a news release the group sent out earlier this week. Under Aaron's Law, disputes over "terms of service” agreements would fall under the jurisdiction of civil courts, rather than be considered a felony charge immediately, the release states.
In 2011, Swartz got into trouble with the federal government when he was indicted for using MIT's computer networks to gain illegal access to JSTOR, a subscription-based service that distributes literary and scientific journals. According to federal prosecutors, he then downloaded more than four million articles. Federal prosecutors charged Swartz with multiple counts of wire fraud, computer fraud, according to the Huffington Post.
According to Swartz's father and his defense attorney, the prosecutors were looking to get Swartz the maximum penalty, which could have meant decades in prison.
"Aaron proved to be an opportunity to make a case — a federal case, a big case — something that functionaries could brag about in the cafeteria line for weeks, months to come," defense attorney Eliott Peters said at Swartz's funeral. "This was about them and their rules."
However, in a recently published statement, U.S. Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said prosecutors were seeking "six months in a low security setting," and that "at no time did this office ever seek — or ever tell Mr. Swartz's attorneys that it intended to seek — maximum penalties under the law," according to NBC News.
That's not the sense Swartz or his family had of what prosecutors had in mind. Swartz's father, Robert, said prosecutors made it clear his son was facing decades in jail and that the only way to avoid such a sentence would be to go to trial, a risky move.
"Aaron did not commit suicide but was killed by the government," said Robert Swartz, Aaron's father. "The hole he left us with will never be repaired."
Demand Progress' proposed reform has already made a supporter out of Representative Zoe Logren (D-Ca.), who will propose the bill, according to the news release.
"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 [Computer Fraud and Abuse Act] 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."
David Segal, Demand Progress' executive director, called the reform "just a start."
"Demand Progress and Aaron's friends and family will continue to push for key reforms to the criminal justice system," Segal said, "and otherwise work towards forwarding Aaron's life's work."
Do you think Aaron Swartz was the victim of unfairly written computer fraud laws? Should those laws be changed?