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Tragedy Spurs Action

The move to find meaning in an internet activist’s suicide.

"It just feels like one way to honor Swartz’s memory is to fix this law that allowed federal prosecutors to hound him to death.”

Alive, Aaron Swartz fought to keep information free. But in a sad twist, his untimely death may turn out to be the spark that leads to real change—and Bay Area activists and politicians are jump-starting the process.

With input from San Francisco’s Electronic Frontier Foundation, Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren of San Jose has proposed “Aaron’s Law,” which would amend parts of the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, under which the 26-year-old Internet activist faced up to 50 years in prison for data theft. Swartz’s family believes that his prosecution contributed to his January suicide.

The 1986 law is so vague, the EFF asserts, that anyone who’s ever clicked “agree” to the small print on a website registration page could run afoul of it. Checking Facebook on a work computer could be a violation, depending on a court’s interpretation, as could using a proxy server from the United States to watch Downton Abbey on the BBC website. Swartz’s alleged crime, for which he was set to face trial in April, was using computers at MIT to download articles from JSTOR, a database of academic work—nothing related to proprietary government or trade information. He never even posted them online, and many of the database articles have since been made available for free on the Internet.

Aaron’s Law would treat the violation of a website’s terms of service as a breach of contract, not a criminal matter, and it would also protect people who use online privacy shields like proxy servers. “It just feels like one way to honor Swartz’s memory is to fix this law that allowed federal prosecutors to hound him to death,” says Parker Higgins, an EFF staffer.

Originally published in the March 2013 issue of San Francisco.
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