When Should Hacking Be Legal?
The Atlantic - 07/05/2016
When Aaron Swartz, a prominent programmer and digital activist, was arrested in 2011, he was halfway through a fellowship at Harvard’s Center for Ethics. Police took him in after he entered a computer closet at MIT and downloaded enormous amounts of data from JSTOR’s extensive database of academic research.
Swartz was charged with 13 felonies, 11 of them based on the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, or CFAA. Some of the charges hinged on violations of JSTOR’s terms of service, which prohibit bulk, automated downloads that prevent other customers from accessing its documents. Faced with the possibility of decades in prison and up to a million dollars in fines, Swartz took his own life in 2013.
Now, a group of academic researchers and journalists is suing the government, challenging the constitutionality of part of CFAA. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, they’re targeting the portion of the law that makes it illegal to break private companies’ terms of service, claiming that the rule violates researchers’ and journalists’ rights to conduct research and investigations in the public interest, as guaranteed by the First Amendment.