Congresswoman Proposes Changes To Computer Fraud Act In Wake Of Aaron Swartz Suicide

In the days following the suicide of Internet activist, RSS co-author and Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz, debate has raged regarding changes that need to be made to federal law. In an attempt to move the conversation forward, Democratic California Rep. Zoe Lofgren is hoping to introduce legislation to amend the law used by attorneys to threaten Swartz with years in prison.

Lofgren posted her proposal to amend the Computer Fraud Act on Reddit, dubbing it "Aaron's Law" and claiming the time is now to prevent further abuse in the future.

"We should prevent what happened to Aaron from happening to other Internet users," Lofgren said. "Using the law in this way could criminalize many everyday activities and allow for outlandishly severe penalties."

The proposal's main goal is to decriminalize the violation of a terms of service agreement.

"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."

The proposal immediately attracted positive attention, including a note from Harvard professor and Swartz ally Lawrence Lessig:

"This is a CRITICALLY important change that would do incredible good," said Lessig. "The CFAA was the hook for the government's bullying of [Aaron.] This law would remove that hook. In a single line: no longer would it be a felony to breach a contract. Let's get this done for Aaron - now."

Still, others like attorney Marcia Hoffman think the proposal wouldn't do enough to prevent similar cases from happening in the future. The CFAA forbids "unauthorized" access by individuals, for change to be meaningful then lawmakers must tackle with what exactly unauthorized access means.

"It's a great first step [Lofgren's proposal]," says Hoffman. "But if it's trying to make sure what happened to Aaron can't happen to someone else, it needs to do more."

Meanwhile, the prosecutor in charge of Swartz' case, Carmen Ortiz, has come under intense fire this week. A White House petition to remove her from office due to overreach has been signed by over 40,000 individuals, suggesting the Obama administration will have to respond to its request relatively soon.

Ortiz defended herself and others in a statement:

"I must, however, make clear that this office's conduct was appropriate in bringing and handling this case," she said. "The career prosecutors handling this matter took on the difficult task of enforcing a law they had taken an oath to uphold, and did so reasonably."

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