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The Legal Legacy of Aaron Swartz

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

Aaron Swartz, a famous Internet activist and computer programmer, committed suicide Friday. He was 26.

In Silicon Valley, it seems that everyone has a story about how Aaron influenced one of their projects. But while Aaron will be remembered for developing the RSS standard and his contributions to Reddit, he also left his mark on the legal world.

For example, if you've ever used RECAP, a free repository of federal case law available as a Firefox add-on, you have likely felt Aaron's influence. Wired reports:

In 2008, the federal court system briefly allowed free access to its court records system, Pacer, which normally charged the public eight cents per page. The free access was only available from computers at 17 libraries across the country, so Aaron went to one of them and installed a small PERL script he had written that cycled sequentially through case numbers, requesting a new document from Pacer every three seconds, and uploading it to the cloud. Aaron pulled nearly 20 million pages of public court documents, which are now available for free on the Internet Archive.

But Aaron didn't limit his efforts to break through web-based paywalls to federal case law. In 2011, Aaron was arrested for "unlawfully obtaining information from," and "recklessly damaging" a "protected computer" after he downloaded 4.8 million documents from the academic archive JSTOR, a digital library of more than 1,500 academic journals, books, and primary sources. He intended to distribute a significant portion of JSTOR's archive of digitized journal articles through one or more file-sharing sites, Ars Technica reports. Aaron allegedly violated JSTOR's terms of use, and evaded Massachusetts Institute of Technology's efforts to stop him from doing so.

Over the last two years, the U.S. Attorney's office in Boston pressed criminal charges against Aaron. The case was set to go to trial in April, and Aaron faced millions of dollars in fines and up to 35 years in prison, The New York Times reports. Family and friends believe that the prosecution led to Aaron's suicide.

His untimely passing is now drawing attention to what critics call the ambiguous and "draconian" Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), which Aaron was accused of violating.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation explains:

Among other things, the CFAA makes it illegal to gain access to protected computers "without authorization" or in a manner that "exceeds authorized access." Unfortunately, the law doesn't clearly explain what a lack of "authorization" actually means. Creative prosecutors have taken advantage of this confusion to craft criminal charges that aren't really about hacking a computer but instead target other behavior the prosecutors don't like.

The EFF is calling upon Congress to change the CFAA and resolve the "authorization" ambiguity. If the group prevails, Aaron Swartz's legal legacy could be one of greater access to information and legal transparency.

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