The federal government has been quite aggressive in prosecuting Internet downloaders under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, so aggressive that one downloader, Aaron Swartz, committed suicide in despair.
Swartz, a computer genius who developed RSS and Reddit, was a fierce Internet activist who believed that academic papers and research, often funded by government and state-financed universities, should be openly available. To prove his point, he downloaded thousands of documents from JSTOR, a locked digital repository of academic research and data, through MIT’s computer system. Having downloaded before, including 2.7 million documents from the federal government’s PACER system to avoid the seven cents a page copying fee, Swartz and the “free” Internet community were shocked when he was arrested and charged with multiple counts of computer and wire fraud.
A conviction under the indictment could have meant 35 years in prison and up to $1 million in fines.
The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act was passed by Congress in 1986 to provide authority to prosecute hackers who access computers to steal information or to disrupt or destroy computer functionality. Swartz’s lifelong campaign to use the Internet to enhance accessibility to information made his prosecution appear ironic. Swartz did not download for personal profit or gain.
The Swartz prosecution illustrates just how serious the federal government is in protecting the internet. Yet user habits make it easy to hack. Catch Me If You Can con man Frank Abagnale recently warned that Facebook profiles are easy targets for hacker. “What I did 40 years ago as a teenage boy is 4,000 times easier now.”
Defendants facing computer fraud charges need experienced counsel to provide a rigorous and strategic defense.