By Ljubica Sarafov | 11 comments
“There’s a battle going on right now. A battle to define everything that happens on the internet in terms of traditional things that the law understands. Is sharing a video on BitTorrent like shoplifting from a movie store? Or is it like loaning a videotape to a friend. Is reloading the webpage over and over again like a peaceful, virtual sit in? Or a violent smashing of shop windows. Is the freedom [to] connect like freedom of speech? Or like the freedom to murder.” — Aaron Swartz
This was the crux of a speech Aaron Swartz delivered entitled “How We Stopped SOPA” this past summer, the “Stop Online Piracy Act.” You may have heard about Aaron’s passing last week in a quick mention on the radio or on your favorite online news site, but those blurbs don’t do him justice.
You’ve probably heard he was a young computer genius. He helped to start Reddit, Creative Commons, and other websites and organizations. He had an instrumental role, at the age of 14, in creating the RSS (Really Simple Specification), the foundation that modern blogging and podcasting is built on. You may have heard he was a passionate activist, founding Demand Progress, co-founding the PCCC, Rootstrikers, Open Library, reading and writing voraciously. You’ve probably heard he took his own life this month, at the age of 26, just weeks before his impending trial.
Recently, Aaron had developed a program to mass-download articles from JSTOR, a digital library of scholarly research. Despite some reports, he didn’t need to gain unauthorized access or “hack” anything to do so: Aaron had access to JSTOR as a Harvard Fellow, and he installed his small program on the MIT’s famously open network, which he also had the right to access. Contrary to what you may have heard, he did not share the copyrighted material he downloaded from JSTOR, and he gave the material back when he was asked. Many have speculated as to what Aaron intended to do with the articles, but that ultimately doesn’t matter, because his intentions aren’t what got him in trouble either.
What landed Aaron in hot water was violating JSTOR’s Terms of Service agreement, one of those little text boxes with pages of legalese that appears when you install iTunes, sign up for Amazon, or join Facebook, where we all checkmark “I Agree” without actually reading what we’re agreeing to. That box constitutes a binding contract.
To be clear, Aaron didn’t become a target because he had broken into a network or stolen files—Aaron was federally indicted because he had violated JSTOR's TOS. JSTOR had written a limit to the number of articles one person is allowed to download, and Aaron exceeded that limit. What I am getting at is – and I cannot stress the absurdity enough – Aaron was indicted on federal charges for downloading too many articles that he had free, legal access to! That is why our government, his government went after him and charged him with multiple felonies.
Under the Computer Fraud and Abuses Act (CFAA), violating a Terms of Service or End User License Agreement is a felony. It’s the only private contract you can serve time in a federal penitentiary for breaking. Congress passed the CFAA in 1986, before most Americans had a computer at home, before broadband, before it was even possible to view images on the web.
Although JSTOR declined to sue Aaron for his breach of contract, under the CFAA, the federal government has the right to pursue criminal prosecution. Carmen Ortiz, the US Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, brought charges against Aaron that could send him to federal prison for 35 years, serve him fines totaling $1 million in addition to his legal fees, and permanently brand him a felon, all for the “crime” of downloading more scholarly articles than he was supposed to.
Imagine if you were sent to federal prison for breaking your lease, even if your landlord declined to press charges. Imagine if it was a felony not to return your rental car on time, even if you call the company to arrange an extra fee. Imagine serving 35 years in federal prison if you quit your job without two weeks’ notice.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California has introduced a bill aptly titled, “Aaron’s Law” to amend key provisions of the CFAA, including the section of the law that declares it a felony to violate a Terms of Service agreement, the section of the law that affected Aaron and everyone who uses online services like you and I.
Lofgren introduced the bill on Reddit – something I’d like to think Aaron would appreciate, not just because he helped to create the site, but because she was seeking feedback from the active, online community on her proposal, exactly the kind of democratic power of technology that Aaron spent his life trying to bring us.
To be honest, passing this bill is just one small step we can take to get us closer to the world Aaron envisioned, where technology is used to expand our freedoms and rights instead of restrict them. There is so much work that needs to be done on these issues! Still, Aaron’s Law is an important step in the right direction. As members and staff of DFA, an online progressive organization governed by these arcane and misguided laws, if we can take part in creating this change, I think we must.
When we lost Aaron, we lost a hero in this battle. To make up for his loss will take more than a single one of us, but together with other groups working on these issues we can make a difference. Now is the time, we all need to raise his banner and continue Aaron’s fight to secure our rights and freedoms in the digital age.
To start with, please join us in signing this petition to pass Rep. Lofgren’s amendment. Then, please share the petition. Talk about it with friends and family, this law affects them too. And join the fight for a more progressive digital future!
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