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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.
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.
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.