Legal experts debate cybercrime laws in wake of Aaron Swartz’s suicide

Panelists at the cybercrime panel at the University of Washington

Panelists at the cybercrime panel at the University of Washington

About 150 people turned out for a discussion entitled “Redefining ‘cybercrime’ after Aaron Swartz: a roundtable discussion” on Monday night at the University of Washington’s Kane Hall.

The touchpoint for the discussion was the controversy surrounding Swartz, a brilliant computer programmer who committed suicide in January.

Swartz, who helped develop RSS and Reddit, was facing charges of wire fraud and computer fraud and the possibility of up to 35 years in prison and fines totaling $1 million. These charges came after Swartz used the network at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to download some 4.8 million scientific and literary journals from JSTOR, a subscription-based online database.

“Even under the facts of the indictment as presented by the government, there’s never been a dispute that he was allowed to download the information he was downloading,” said panelist Marcia Hofmann, senior staff attorney at the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation. “The real issue was the way that he was doing it. … He was downloading this stuff faster than he was supposed to.”

Aaron Swartz. Photo via Wikipedia

Aaron Swartz. Photo via Wikipedia

Access to information – one of the hallmarks of the Internet – must remain in the forefront of people’s minds, Hoffman said.

“It’s really important for us to think about how to create breathing room for situations where people have authorization to access information, but in a way that’s maybe unanticipated,” Hofmann said.

Brian Rowe, an adjunct professor at Seattle University School of Law, pointed out that the laws surrounding Internet usage and accessibility need to reflect the changing landscape of the online world.

“I think this is an area where technology can inform law,” Rowe said. “In law, we tend to look backward and try to see what has worked in the past and try to stretch that analogy to fit what’s new. In technology, we realize that things change, and we need an iterative design process, and that we’re going to screw it up, and we need to fix it when new technology comes forward.”

 Ryan Hueter is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.

  • joewallin

    Did anyone advocate that the computer fraud and abuse act simply be repealed?

  • lucascott

    Im all for them looking at the issue and working out what is really illegal entry and when is something really criminal entry and when it is simply TOS violation and thus a civil issue

    but i’m sick of folks acting like Swartz is some kind of martyr. He had a chance to take a stand and fight. That’s what activists do. Instead, out of some fear that the prosectors might get the sentence they wanted, embarrassment that his rep was ruined etc he took the easy way out and killed himself. He doesn’t deserve to be held up as a hero