Law Threatening Swartz Would be Scaled Back in House Bill

U.S. lawmakers want to scale back statutes that could have led to a prison term of as long as 35 years for Aaron Swartz, the Internet activist who committed suicide last week, 18 months after he was charged with stealing articles from an academic database.

Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, said yesterday that she plans to introduce a bill to amend the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and wire fraud statutes. Justice Department officials charged Swartz with violations that could have led to as much as $1 million in fines. Representative Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat, supports the Lofgren bill, according to his chief of staff.

Swartz, who committed suicide Jan. 11, was charged with downloading more than 4.8 million password-protected research articles through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s network with the intent to distribute them for free. Swartz’s family cited overzealous prosecution by the Justice Department as a reason Swartz killed himself.

“There’s a lot of criticism in the legal community that this act is overbroad and criminalizes a lot of conduct that, as a society, we would not consider criminal,” said Jim Denaro, a lawyer at CipherLaw, Washington law firm. Through the act, “the Justice Department can pursue criminal cases against individuals who have done things using computers that don’t appear to be criminal in nature.”

Inequitable Sentences

Under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, violators can face years to decades in prison simply for violating the terms of use of a database, Denaro said. An individual who has access to a website or database can be prosecuted for exceeding their authorized access, he said.

“There are murderers, violent criminals, who spend less time in prison than you would spend for illegally downloading journal articles,” Denaro said in a telephone interview.

The same act has been used to prosecute Bradley Manning, the Army private charged with sending classified documents to WikiLeaks, a website known for exposing government secrets. Freedom of information advocates like Swartz face an emotional toll as their cases are pursued by the government, said Kristinn Hrafnsson, a spokesman for WikiLeaks.

“Facing relentless attempts of persecution where everything is tried to find whatever will support charges against an individual, it has an effect,” Hrafnsson said in a telephone interview.

Judicial ‘Travesty’

The death of Swartz, an Internet entrepreneur and advocate of open access to research, has touched off online protests worldwide among academics, hackers and Web pioneers. A group called the MIT Society for Open Science is calling on the school to apologize for its role in the case against Swartz. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, said yesterday that the prosecution of Swartz, was a “travesty of justice.”

Lofgren, whose district covers part of California’s Silicon Valley, called Swartz’s death “tragic.” She said she met him when they were both participating in an Internet protest over antipiracy legislation in Congress a year ago.

The Swartz case “makes clear the overreach in this prosecution was made possible by the computer fraud statute,” Lofgren said today in a telephone interview. Under her bill, violations of terms-of-use clauses would no longer be prosecuted through the statute.

“I hope we can move this simple fix quickly,” Lofgren said. “The public support for this could make the difference.”

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