California Rep. Proposes 'Aaron's Law' to Amend Internet Abuse Legislation

By Sunnivie Brydum

Originally published on Advocate.com January 16 2013 5:59 PM ET

A California lawmaker announced Tuesday that she intends to introduce federal legislation that would revise the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the law used to prosecute famed internet activist, hacker, and programmer Aaron Swartz. 

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, plans to call the legislation "Aaron's Law," honoring the free-information activist who took his life Friday rather than face harsh charges brought upon him by the Federal government for downloading too many scholarly articles from online database JSTOR. JSTOR sided with Swartz and refused to prosecute. 

Lofgren told The Huffington Post that many were "deeply troubled" when they heard of the 26-year-old Swartz's suicide and learned that the Justice Department was seeking more than 30 years in jail for a crime Swartz's supporters contend was victimless.

Lofgren's legislation would help "prevent what happened to Aaron from happening to other Internet users," Lofgren wrote in a thread on Reddit, the link-sharing site Swartz helped develop. 

"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," wrote Lofgren. "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. Using the law in this way could criminalize many everyday activities and allow for outlandishly severe penalties."

As news of the famed hacker's death broke, his family and partner issued a strongly worded statement placing some of the the blame for Swartz's death squarely on the federal prosecutors and "a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach."

Swartz, who had male and female partners but refused to define his sexual orientation, was facing more than 30 years in prison for connecting his laptop to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology server and accessing the subscription-based online database JSTOR, primarily used for scholarly and peer-reviewed articles. Swartz downloaded millions of articles with the intent to make them public. 

Before he attended MIT, Swartz pioneered the technology that created RSS feeds at just 14 years old, and later helped found the site that became Reddit. Swartz reportedly long battled depression and health issues, but online outrage over his death and what many saw as needlessly harsh punishment has built steadily since the news broke. 

Lofgren said she is currently seeking cosponsors for the legislation in both the House and Senate.