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

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  1. icon
    Ima Fish (profile), 12 Mar 2013 @ 10:10am

    And before John Carmack and John Romero formed Id Software, they would use their employer's computers at night and weekends to write their games on, without permission.

    That's breaking and entering, trespassing, embezzlement, and because it was without permission, numerous violations of CFAA (which obviously didn't exist at the time.)

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