The US Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is old and it’s showing it’s age. It was created nearly 30 years ago and to be honest is completely out of step with the internet age in many people’s opinions. It’s often criticised when some young hacker is being faced with decades in prison and millions of dollars in fines.
The outdated law is again being questioned on the sad story of Aaron Swartz, who commited suicide last week. Aaron was a computer activist who was facing prison and massive fines for allegedly hacking into a MIT database and stealing lots of academic journals. The US Prosecutors were pursuing Aaron with zealotry possibly driven forward by some important people from MIT.
The case was based on the 1984 Act, which is one of the most amended pieces of law in the American system. In fact many say it has been amended so many times, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense any more. Legal experts say that some of the penalties for minor offenses are much more than for the more serious crimes.
The problem is that the wording in this Act is so unclear, the penalties are regarding people accessing computers without authority and the value of damage or theft is only $5000. Lawsuits have come across people for a host of minor offences, for example a famous one was regarding a work laptop. Someone was leaving to set up and work as a competitor, before they went they deleted the content of the laptop. The employee was sued because when he decided to quit he was no longer authorized to access his laptop!
There are many, many other cases and one thing that it apparent is that ordinary people are being brought to face lawsuits under this act. Aaron Swartz was under tremendous pressure and it certainly must have contributed to his state of mind. There were many uncertainties in the case and Aaron faced many years of worry in the years to come. In computer law he may have been better off downloading from another location than the US. The UK has more developed computer fraud laws, if he’d connected using a proxy using this advice
– and obtained a hidden IP address from a different country, then he might have been able to face trial there instead!
Perhaps the brilliant young computer programmer would still be with us today.
It’s certainly not a great advert for the land of the free, where commercial interests seemed to have trumped the rights of ordinary people to access and share information. Personally I now tend to browse the internet through either a German or French proxy – mainly because those are the countries I feel safest protecting personal liberties. Although the UK law is probably the most developed in this area as suggested above.