Advocates want to hear from AG nominee on Aaron Swartz

Civil liberty and public interest groups want President Obama’s attorney general nominee to answer questions about a cybersecurity law used to charge Internet activist Aaron Swartz, who subsequently killed himself.

The groups are pressing Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to ask nominee Loretta Lynch how the Justice Department, under her leadership, would interpret the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), a 1986 law that prohibits a number of abuses, such as trespassing on computer systems. 

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“Her confirmation hearing offers a unique opportunity to jumpstart that debate and to push for meaningful CFAA reform,” the groups wrote in a letter to Franken sent Tuesday. “Given your admirable record on these issues, we ask you to take the lead once again by pressing these important issues at this critical moment.”

Lynch is scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. 

Critics say the law is overly broad, which could allow authorities to prosecute innocuous cases like violating a website’s terms of service agreement. They also criticize the “draconian sentencing regime” within the law. 

Swartz, who was 26 years old, was charged under the law in 2011 and was facing up to 35 years in prison and fines up to $1 million for illegally accessing the network at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in order to download millions of academic journal articles from a subscription service. The Justice Department alleged he planned to post those articles on file sharing sites. 

Swartz killed himself in 2013, a few months before his trial was scheduled to begin. His family partially blamed his death on overzealous prosecution. 

In the letter, the groups said the Obama administration’s recent cybersecurity proposals would increase the harsh sentencing under the law, while not doing enough to clarify the vague language that allows prosecutions of Terms of Service violations. 

“Unfortunately, the White House’s recent proposal to modify the CFAA does not solve these issues — in fact, the proposal worsens the law in several areas,” they wrote. 

The letter sent to Franken was signed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Center for Democracy and Technology, Access, Credo Action, Demand Progress, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Fight for the Future, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and New America’s Open Technology Institute, as well as members of Swartz's family.