Innovators Break Stuff, Including The Rules: How Gates, Jobs & Zuckerberg Could Have Been Targeted Like Aaron Swartz

from the do-we-want-to-stamp-out-that-kind-of-innovation? dept

In a conversation with some folks in the tech industry recently, someone pointed out that nearly every super famous entrepreneur likely could have, at some point, been legitimately accused of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), which is the law that prosecutors used against Aaron Swartz, and is in desperate need of an overhaul. Over at the EFF, Trevor Timm has a great post exploring how Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg all might have faced charges under the CFAA. You should read the whole thing, but here are a few snippets:

On Zuckerberg:
In 2006, while a sophomore at Harvard, Zuckerberg created a website called “Facemash” which compared photographs of Harvard’s entire population, asking users to compare two photos and vote on who looked better. Zuckerberg allegedly got access to these photos by “hacking” into each of Harvard’s nine House websites and then collecting them all on one site. It’s not clear what this “hacking” was, but since the charges against him included “breaching security,” it may have fun afoul of the law.
On Jobs:
Columbia Law Professor Tim Wu notes in the New Yorker that Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, did acts that were “more economically damaging than, Swartz’s.” The two college roommates made what were called “blue boxes,” cheap devices that mimicked a certain frequency that allowed them to trick AT&T’s telephone system into making free long-distance calls. They also sold blue boxes before moving onto bigger and better ideas.
On Gates:
In his autobiography, Allen told the story of when the two future billionaires “got hold of” an administrator password at the company they worked at before starting Microsoft. The company had timeshared computers and Allen and Gates were getting charged for using them for their personal work.

The two men used the password to access the company's accounts and set about trying to find a free runtime account so that they could carry on programming without having to pay for the time. They also copied the account database for later perusal. However, management got wise to the plan.
"We hoped we'd get let off with a slap on the wrist, considering we hadn't done anything yet. But then the stern man said it could be 'criminal' to manipulate a commercial account. Bill and I were almost quivering."
Of course, defenders of the existing law will argue that these episodes are entirely unrelated to the later greatness that all three of these folks were eventually involved in. But that's not actually supported by the facts. Facesmash almost certainly directly led Zuckerberg to Facebook. And, in the case of Steve Jobs, he specifically told an interviewer:
“Experiences like that taught us the power of ideas…And if we hadn’t have made blue boxes, there would’ve been no Apple.”
Innovators innovate because they hack away at stuff. They push boundaries and they try new things to explore uncharted worlds. Do we really want to be punishing people like that with threats of 35 years in jail? (And, yes, the government absolutely did threaten him with 35 years.)

Filed Under: aaron swartz, bill gates, cfaa, hacking, innovation, mark zuckerberg, steve jobs
Companies: apple, facebook, microsoft


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  1. icon
    Mason Wheeler (profile), 12 Mar 2013 @ 11:56am

    What innovators?

    Gates: Innovated a grand total of one original idea in his entire career. Anyone remember Microsoft Bob? (If not, remember Clippy the "helpful" paper clip? Imagine an entire shell full of characters like him. That's Bob.) Everything else, from DOS and Windows to Office and Internet Explorer to their programming tools, was either purchased from a real innovator or blatantly (and badly) ripped off from another product.

    Jobs: Began by copying Xerox's innovation, but actually did build some new and useful concept on the foundation they laid. (Which Microsoft immediately went and produced a bad ripoff of. See above.) Never managed to get anywhere with his products because he and his company insisted on too-tight control of everything and making life too difficult for developers. And as soon as he actually got a little bit of power in the marketplace, he went waaaay off the deep end and instituted policies far more evil than anything we ever saw coming out of Microsoft. I suppose that could count as an innovation...

    Zuckerberg: Began by breaking into systems, but that's OK, because he later ended up stealing from his employers who hired him to create a site, taking their design--which was essentially just a MySpace ripoff--for his own. He then proclaimed privacy irrelevant by royal fiat, participated in a massive act of securities fraud when he took his company public (for which no one was ever prosecuted that I know of) and screwed investors out of billions while padding his own pockets considerably.

    Like they say, hindsight's 20/20. I'm having a hard time seeing why these people shouldn't have been prosecuted for their early crimes and prevented from going on and causing further harm. Can someone come up with some examples of guys who actually contributed in a positive way?

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