Aaron Swartz, a 26-year-old once described as an Internet prodigy, committed suicide shortly after being charged with a slew of computer crimes by the US Justice Department, and his death has sparked questions about the overreach of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and prosecutorial intimidation.
Legal experts generally agree that the charges were legitimate, but they also agree that the Justice Department blatantly abused its prosecutorial discretion to intimidate Swartz by threatening him with up to 35 years in prison – the maximum allowable punishment for the felonies with which he was charged.
Swartz, a known advocate for open information on the Internet, was accused of downloading millions of documents from JSTOR, a subscription-based service for academic research. Swartz returned the files to JSTOR once the malfeasance was uncovered and the company refused to press charges, but that did not stop the Justice Department from attempting to make an example of Swartz.
Now, both lawmakers and people in the IT community are wondering whether Swartz’s prosecution was in retaliation for the programmer’s insistence on information freedom, which has included numerous requests under the Freedom of Information Act. One such request triggered an inquiry involving the Federal Bureau of Investigation as Swartz fought for more government transparency, and chief prosecutor Carmen Ortiz is being painted by some as a bully charged with sending a message to other would-be information advocates.
The broader question for many is the vague language of the CFAA and how the law could result in such charges in the first place. It seems clear that the sweeping nature of the Act has far-reaching implications as it applies to Internet freedoms and the open transfer of digital information, and many scholars believe the real problem is the passage of such wide-ranging laws.
An examination and revision of the CFAA in the wake of Swartz’s death would in no way justify the loss of Swartz, but it would at least serve as a sign that lawmakers understand when a law and the behavior of its legal professionals is out of step with reality.
(Photo courtesy: peretzp)