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

Reader Comments

The First Word

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread

  1. icon
    Coogan (profile), 12 Mar 2013 @ 12:21pm

    Re: Quite a stretch, Mike. -- But pleasant fantasy!

    As the hippies would say, "Go to bed, old man!"

    Your arguments could be extended to any invention over the past 400 years to paint them as somehow "evil" inventions.

    Airplanes allow drug smugglers to bring in their toxic cargo, and terrorists to take hostages and crash into buildings. Thanks a lot, Orville and Wibur!

    Cars kill thousands on the road every year. Thanks a lot, Daimler Motor Car Company!

    Railroads allowed a-holes like Cornelius Vanderbuilt and Jay Gould to become obscenely wealthy. Thanks a lot, James Watt!

    Three easy examples. Three developments that revolutionized not just the country, but the entire world, and provided incalculable benefit to humankind. Did they produce some bad apples? Yeah - our inventions are merely tools conjured from our imagination and utilized by our flawed souls. They have every bit the capability of evil and good as their human operator. No more, no less. There is no such thing as "bad" innovation. Those who look at change as a threat to their livelihood are both shortsighted and underestimate their own abilities to adapt and change.

    That's the kind of "innovation" that I think is good? Frak yeah. Innovation grows us as a species. It actively repels stagnation. It drives cultural and physiological changes and in more cases than not, increases prosperity across the entire planet. Innovation begets change, which begets more innovation. Stagnation begets complacency, which will beget extinction.

    To quote Robert Heinlein:

    Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded here and there, now and then are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.
    This is known as "bad luck."

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter

Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Techdirt Gear
Show Now: Takedown
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads


Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.