Aaron Swartz and the CFAA

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Case Study 8 — Aaron Swartz and the CFAA


In 2011, Internet activist Aaron Swartz was arrested for hacking under the CFAA (Computer Fraud and Abuse Act) after downloading a large quantity of documents from JSTOR. Two years later, faced with up to 50 years in prison and $4 million in fines (originally 35 years and $1 million), Aaron took his own life.

Based on the links above, answer the following questions. You don’t have to read any particular link, but it may be necessary to read more than one.

  1. The CFAA makes violating the terms and conditions of a website a felony. How common is such activity? Is this a crime primarily committed by “hackers”, or might ordinary people be likely to violate this law? Give examples.
  2. Larry Lessig criticizes the DOJ for a disproportionate response in their application of this law. What does proportionality in the law mean? Compare the penalty proposed in this case to other crimes.
  3. Aaron clearly violated the terms of JSTOR’s service agreement. In addition to that, was there anything else he did that was illegal? What penalties did JSTOR seek?
  4. Why was the CFAA originally enacted? Was that threat realistic? How does it relate to the current case?
  5. Give three examples of Aaron’s activism.