Many North Dakota residents may not recognize the name Aaron Swartz, but rest assured he is a pivotal figure in the realms of the internet and criminal defense. Swartz was a genius programmer and an internet activist, and is probably best known for his role in creating the website Reddit. But he is also well known for his suicide, a tragic incident that many believe happened because Swartz was being accused of serious (and, depending on your opinion, incredibly unfair) internet crimes.

Swartz downloaded 5 million journal articles from the online database JSTOR while using the Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer network (he was not affiliated with MIT in any way). Hardly a damaging crime, even though it was technically illegal.

However, federal prosecutors threw the book at Swartz, using the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (a woefully out-of-date law that was written in the 1980s) to threaten Swartz with a 50-year prison sentence. It is believed that such a potential heavy punishment drove Swartz to kill himself.

The CFAA says that a person can’t “exceed authorized access to protected computers.” It’s a vague definition that was written in the days when the internet and constant computer access were not around — and it just so happens to be able to let prosecutors put people accused of internet crimes in a no-win situation. The huge penalties are leveraged to force a plea deal.

Sadly, these excessive punishments aren’t reserved just for internet crimes. Too many people accused of crimes are faced with extreme prison sentences simply because mandatory minimums say so. There is no nuance or critical thinking about the case itself — it is just a blanket sentence given that your supposed crime qualifies as a mandatory minimum incident. Hopefully some of these laws (especially the CFAA) change in the near future.

Source: Slate, “A Year After Aaron Swartz’s Death, Our Terrible Computer Crime Laws Remain Unchanged,” Justin Peters, Jan. 13, 2014