What is Aaron's Law?

Aaron’s Law refers to a bill introduced in the United States Congress in 2013. Though the bill did not pass Congress, it was named for the lasting influence of Aaron Swartz, co-founder of Reddit, several subsequent changes to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). The CFAA has widespread application in business practices to ensure legal and ethical conduct with regards to computer-based information and documents.

Key Takeaways

  • Aaron's Law is actually a bill presented in the U.S. Congress which was not passed into law, but still has lasting influence in legal discussions regarding the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).
  • Aaron Swartz, the co-founder of Reddit, was tried for information crimes and committed suicide while potentially facing a 35-year prison sentence.
  • Swartz's situation was referenced as evidence that the CFAA needs major revision because it is too vague and subject to overreaching interpretation.

Understanding Aaron's Law

Aaron’s Law was a bill written by representative Zoe Lofgren of California. Representative Lofgren proposed the bill in the wake of Aaron Swartz’s death. Aaron’s law proposed amending the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986, after internet activist Aaron Swartz died by suicide while facing a potential 35-year prison sentence for illegally downloading millions of academic articles that were only available via a subscription service. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986, or the CFAA, is the the law that governs computer abuse in the United States. Congress had amended the CFAA somewhat regularly, with changes occurring in 1989, 1994, 1996 and 2002. The controversial U.S. Patriot Act greatly impacted the CFAA in 2001, and the 2008 Identity Theft Enforcement and Restitution Act also affected the scope of the CFAA.

Despite the many changes, proponents of the failed Aaron’s Law argued that the CFAA is too vague. Because of the wording of the CFAA, users who violate terms of service can face prison time. Another major error in the CFAA is that because of of redundancies, individuals can be tried for the same crime more than once under different provisions. These redundancies enable charges to compound and allow for disproportionately severe penalties for those convicted. Aaron’s Law proposed amending the language of the CFAA to make punishments in terms of both prison terms and fines for downloading copyrighted material less punitive and more reflective of the value of the material stolen.

The Death of Aaron Swartz, Internet Activist, and the Impetus for Aaron’s Law

The legislation was drafted in remembrance of and in reference to the death of Aaron Swartz. Swartz was arrested in January 2011 for violations of the CFAA. He was known for contributing to the development of the RSS protocol and various other innovations, but was also known as an internet activist, supporting progressive political platforms. Police affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology arrested Schwartz on breaking-and-entering charges as Swartz attempted to download academic journal articles from JSTOR from an unmarked and unlocked closet. Eventually this led to federal charges that included two counts of wire fraud and eleven violations of the CFAA, and Swartz faced 35 years in prison and up to $1 million in fines. After Swartz declined a plea bargain, and the prosecution subsequently rejected his counter-offer, Swartz was found dead by suicide in his Brooklyn home.