A new week of action has united Internet advocacy groups Demand Progress and Internet Defense League with allies on Reddit and Boing Boing, in a concentrated campaign to demand that Congress update the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for an era when people actually use computers.
The CFAA was passed in the mid-1980s, before the World Wide Web was invented, yet it now makes many fairly common Internet activities into federal felonies, punishable by years in prison.
The founder of Demand Progress, Aaron Swartz, was facing just such a prosecution that could have put him in prison for more than 30 years, for sharing documents from academic journal archive JSTOR while he was a student at MIT. Swartz killed himself in January, seeing no hope for freedom or justice.
Swartz' death has been a wake-up call to his friends, supporters and online allies, and has inspired numerous initiatives, of which this week of action is the latest.
The action has two goals. The first is to stop a proposed expansion of the law that would make its penalties even more harsh. The second is to enact further reforms that would prevent other abuses of the law to prosecute anyone for very little cause.
A press release explains that the following actions are considered crimes:
- Sharing passwords for Facebook or other social media sites with friends
- Starting a social media profile under a pseudonym
- Exaggerating one's height on a dating site
- Visiting a site if one is under the stipulated age requirement (age 18 for many sites)
- Blocking cookies in a way that enables one to circumvent a news site's paywall. (For instance, the New York Times website cannot block those who delete cookies from reading more than the allotted number of free articles each month.
"Aaron's tragic passing has illuminated the absurdity of the CFAA as never before," said David Segal, Demand Progress's executive director. "This law is interpreted in a way that means that millions of Americans — perhaps even most Americans — could be considered criminals.
"That's a hallmark of authoritarianism that runs contrary to the interests and wants of most Americans and to the values upon which our country was founded — and stifles free speech and innovation. Now is the time for reform."