On January 11, 2013, facing trumped up felony charges and potentially decades in prison, my partner, Aaron Swartz, made the tragic choice to end his life. He was only 26.
Aaron faced 35 years behind bars for, basically, checking too many books out of the “library” at once.
Aaron had authorized access to academic articles through a nonprofit online library called JSTOR. Two years ago he was accused of downloading 4.8 million of these academic articles at once. Essentially he downloaded the articles too fast. He never distributed them and he never thought downloading too many articles could result in decades of prison time. JSTOR (the supposed victim here) even publically asked prosecutors to drop the criminal charges. But the US Attorneys ignored their request. They wanted to make an example out of Aaron because they couldn't catch the real computer criminals, like people who steal credit cards -- and in the process they destroyed his life.
The law treated Aaron like a dangerous criminal, but everyone else knew a different Aaron, the real Aaron; he was an innovator, entrepreneur and social justice advocate who co-authored RSS 1.0 (the web’s format for sharing and distributing content) at age 14, co-founded the social news website Reddit and led the fight to stop SOPA and PIPA -- the Internet censorship bill. He wanted to reform our criminal justice system and keep the internet free and open.
That's why today I’m asking you to join me in calling on Congress to amend the outdated Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), the law that Aaron was prosecuted under. In its current form, the CFAA makes violating a website's terms of service or user agreement – that long fine print you agree to but never read – a felony with the potential for many years behind bars. It also gives absurdly broad powers to the Department of Justice, allowing prosecutors to criminalize an array of online activity at their discretion.
Congress is introducing a bill that we’ve called "Aaron's Law". Aaron's Law would decriminalize the violation of user agreements – they are contracts, and as with other contracts, disputes about them should be settled in civil courts, not at criminal trials.
I can’t get Aaron back, but together we can make sure no one else ever suffers this injustice, and that the internet remains a free and open bastion for knowledge and human connection.