It was just a few months ago that Aaron Swartz, a co-founder of Reddit and a distinguished Internet pioneer and activist, took his own life. Swartz had found himself in serious trouble under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), and was looking at a thirty-five year jail sentence, along with a $1 million fine, after engaging in civil disobedience for the open information movement.
Swartz’s suicide sparked a national outcry, with many blaming his suicide on U.S Attorney Carmen Ortiz and Assistant U.S Attorney Stephen Heymann, and their relentless pursuit to punish Swartz for his supposed crimes. However, it was Swartz’s suicide that brought the CFAA into the spotlight, bringing attention to ways in which this law can be used to criminalize everyday use of the Internet. Now, in the wake of Aaron Swartz’s death, new legislation is being proposed to reform the very Act that many have speculated to be the cause of his tragic end.
This proposed legislation is titled Aaron’s Law, and it seeks to reform the CFAA, a law which many have argued “has become outdated and criminalizes online behavior that shouldn't be punished”. Demand Progress claims it has been used to target activists like Swartz, hackers who expose security breaches like Andrew Auernheimer, and even U.S. whistleblower Bradley Manning.
The creators of Aaron’s Law have first zeroed in on the definition of ‘unauthorized access’; right now the meaning behind this statement is very broad, lacking clarity on what counts as being unauthorized access. This vagueness has resulted in “multiple interpretations by prosecutors”, making it easy to turn any online user into a criminal. Aaron’s Law seeks to tighten this definition, so that fewer innocent people are caught up in its expansive terms.
Under Aaron’s Law, breaking online ‘terms of service’ agreements would no longer be against the law. When people agree to online terms of service, they are signing an online contract that could make it a criminal offence if an individual were to go against these rules. Aaron’s Law wants to make sure this interpretation is removed from the CFAA, arguing that this goes beyond its original intention and can be used to criminalize everyday Internet use. This newly proposed legislation also removes a clause which gives prosecutors permission to impose “multiple charges for the same violation,” and the law also seeks to reduce “the maximum number of penalties in certain cases,” making them more lenient.
But there are some who actually want to expand the reach of the CFAA. A draft of amendments being discussed in Washington will worsen the current CFAA’s penalties; for example, by punishing Internet users before any crime has been actually been committed, or as law professor Orin Kerr suggests, even making it a crime to lie about your age on a dating site.
As the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes, Aaron’s Law is “far from perfect”. This digital rights group believes that more could have been added to the proposed reforms, for example ensuring that it is not illegal for users to “remain anonymous or mask their identities online.” However, it cannot be forgotten that Aaron’s Law is the turning point needed to start an important conversation about reining in an overly broad law that criminalizes everyday uses of the Internet, putting in place punishments that could lead to years in prison.