After Tragedy, California Lawmaker Proposes Amendment To Anti-Hacking Law

A California lawmaker has unveiled a bill to amend the anti-hacking law at the center of the charges against Aaron Swartz, a Web activist who committed suicide last week.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) says she will propose amending the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act to make clear that people don't commit a crime simply by violating a private company's terms of service.

Currently, the computer fraud law makes it a crime to access a network without authorization. Some prosecutors interpret that definition to mean that people who disregard a company's user agreement -- such as by creating a fake MySpace profile -- commit computer fraud.

Swartz had been facing trial for allegedly using the computer network at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to download more than 4 million scholarly articles from academic publisher JSTOR. He was charged with wire fraud, computer fraud and other crimes that could have carried more than 35 years in prison. Many people think Swartz -- who had long advocated that information should be more widely available -- downloaded the papers in order to make them more accessible. No one has ever thought that he acted out of a profit motive.

The charges against Swartz were partially based on the premise that he accessed the network without authorization. The theory is that JSTOR prohibits mass downloading of articles, so Swartz exceeded his authorization when he proceeded with the downloads. Also, MIT implemented restrictions in order to stop the mass JSTOR downloads, but Swartz got around them; that circumvention allegedly criminalized his access of MIT's network.

Lofgren's proposed change to the computer fraud law, which she posted to Reddit, would specify that people don't exceed authorized access to a computer by disregarding user agreements, acceptable use policies or other terms of service.

Already the proposal is drawing support. Jennifer Granick, director of civil liberties at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, suggests some minor tweaks to the language, but says Lofgren's amendment is a "welcome and much needed step."

Meanwhile, the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, Carmen Ortiz, who was in charge of Swartz's prosecution, faces mounting criticism for her office's handling of the case.

Prosecutors offered a plea deal to Swartz, but for a felony plea and up to six months in jail. Ortiz herself acknowledged in a statement Swartz didn't intend to gain financially from the downloads. Yet she insists that her office "sought an appropriate sentence that matched the alleged conduct."

Many observers, including former U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Gertner in Massachusetts, have come forward this week to condemn Ortiz's tough stance. A petition on Whitehouse.gov seeking her removal has drawn more than 40,000 signatures as of Thursday afternoon.

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