Justice Department May Reform Law Used to Prosecute Aaron Swartz


Ragesoss \ Wikimedia

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) says it is considering loosening Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), which has a controversial reputation for doling out disproportionately harsh sentences for electronic misdemeanors. Wired calls the unjust cyber-crackdown, nourished by the CFAA, "our new war on drugs."

Aaron Swartz is a well-known victim of the stringent laws. The 26-year-old computer wizard made contributions to RSS and Reddit, and organized resistance to SOPA. He engaged in the electronic equivalent to trespass when he downloaded material in bulk off of the JSTOR. This deed was a violation of the digital library's terms-of-service, but prosecutors treated as a severe criminal act. He hanged himself while facing up to $1 million in fines and 35 years in prison.

As a result of the CFAA, many more Americans have received draconian punishments, disproportionate to the relatively minor crimes they committed. 

The law, enacted in 1986, appears to be fueled by a fear of the digital age. Hanni Fakhoury, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, argued in Wired:

The government's mindset is that technology and the internet can wreak havoc. Disseminating the login credentials of a powerful media company to vandalize a few websites, for example, has the potential to cause more damage than spray-painting graffiti on a highway sign.

Confronted with mounting pressure from civil rights groups, the DOJ claims it intends to reform. The Washington Post reports:

In congressional testimony this week, the agency said it would support modifying the CFAA in ways that would make it harder for the government to prosecute Americans who commit relatively minor infractions online.

The U.S. government still doesn't quite know how to respond to crimes committed electronically. Reform is necessary to curb the unjust sentences dangled in front of at Americans like Swartz. The Justice Department's apparent willingness to reform could be a step in the right direction.