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

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  1. icon
    PaulT (profile), 13 Mar 2013 @ 3:36am

    Re: What am I missing? This just sounds like larceny.

    "this article says they did, and that such activity -- far from being punished -- should be commended"

    Nope, you've completely misunderstood the point. It's not saying that they did everything right. In some ways it was blatant stealing (the blue box was clearly stealing a service from the phone company, for example). It could be argued that they're good because they allowed these young men to experiment with things they later perfected, but it's irrelevant to the central point whether you call the actions "bad" or not.

    The point is that had they been treated like Swartz was treated, their contributions to society would have been lost. That new innovators can be stopped (or made into criminals) before they even start as a result of the same things that people who revolutionised the world a generation or less before them did. That innovators will be shut down because they threaten the established status quo.

    "There would've been no Apple" -- and we'd be worse off today how, exactly?"

    No Apple II or Macintosh, which means a lot of inspiration for other technological innovations as well as no revolutions in other industries (e.g. desktop publishing and spreadsheets first found popular homes on Apple equipment). No iMac, nor OSX, meaning that Microsoft have a complete stranglehold on the desktop market (assuming that Gates wasn't also locked up, potentially meaning no PC revolution at all). No iPod or iTunes, meaning that digital music may not have taken off in the way it did, and all the benefits that brings, as well as the smartphone and tablet markets that were struggling or dying (or at best restricted to corporate markets). Pixar may not have become what it became without Steve Jobs' involvement during a difficult time of their history. The list goes on...

    It's true that some of these innovations may have come about without Apple, and certainly they were better at innovating rather than inventing - so, other people may have innovated in similar ways. But, the world would be a very different place if Jobs & Wozniak had found themselves dead or in jail as a result of their early phreaking attempts.

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