Lawmakers pledge to change hacking law during Swartz memorial

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act gives prosecutors too much authority, lawmakers say

U.S. lawmakers pledged to rewrite an antihacking law as hundreds of people gathered in Washington, D.C., to mourn the death of Internet activist and innovator Aaron Swartz.

Speakers at a Monday memorial service for Swartz, who committed suicide in January, remembered him as an intensely curious young man who wanted to help people and change the world. The world is a "worse place" because of Swartz's death, said his girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman.

Swartz was "one of the brightest stars in America," Stinebrickner-Kauffman said. "He had so much more to do."

As a teenager, Swartz played key roles in the development of the RSS online content syndication technology, in the creation of the Creative Commons licenses and in the founding of the Reddit news sharing site. He later cofounded Demand Progress, a left-leaning activist group focused on technology policy and other issues.

He died facing charges that could have led to a 35-year jail sentence and a US$1 million fine for allegedly hacking into a Massachusetts Institute of Technology network and downloading millions of scholarly articles from the JSTOR subscription service. Swartz wanted to make the articles available for free.

Swartz was brilliant, but his stubbornness and impulsiveness could be frustrating, Stinebrickner-Kauffman said. "He was always asking for forgiveness instead of permission," she said.

Several speakers at the memorial service, including four lawmakers, called for changes in the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), which prosecutors in Massachusetts used to charge him. While some computer hacking laws are appropriate, prosecutors went too far in pressing for a lengthy jail sentence, said Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican.

"The crime and the punishment have to fit," Issa said.

Lawmakers said the law gives prosecutors too much authority to bring charges in hactivism cases where there's little damage to the victims. "We are going to change this unjust law," said Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat.

Swartz was charged in July 2011 with computer intrusion, fraud and data theft.

Carmen Ortiz, U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, has defended the prosecution of Swartz by saying her office was not seeking the maximum penalties.

Several speakers remembered Swartz's interest in politics and his willingness to work across party lines on Internet issues.

Demand Progress was one of the leading opponents of the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act, two bills that would have dramatically strengthened online copyright enforcement in the U.S. Demand Progress and other groups helped organize an Internet uprising against the two bills in early 2012.

Critics of overzealous prosecutions from both the right and the left need to continue to work together to fix the CFAA and other laws, said Berin Szoka, president of TechFreedom, a libertarian think tank. But several members of the crowded shouted at Szoka when he said he couldn't condone Swartz's hacking of the MIT network.

"Knowledge for everyone!" one audience member shouted.

Organizers of the memorial service asked people to get involved in the Internet freedom issues Swartz championed and in efforts to rewrite the CFAA. His friends have set up a website to organize those efforts.

"We have to finish his work," said friend Ben Wikler, executive vice president of Change.org.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Tags redditTaren Stinebrickner-KauffmanBerin SzokaDemand ProgressU.S. CongressCarmen OrtizlegislationBen Wiklerintellectual propertycopyrightRon WydenTechFreedomlegalChange.orgJSTORAaron SwartzgovernmentDarrell Issa

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