Providence State Representative David Segal's 2010 Congressional campaign was a shoestring affair. It would not prevail.

But for a certain breed of progressive — young, tech savvy, uncompromising — his bid had an undeniable allure. And among those drawn to the cause was digital prodigy Aaron Swartz.

Swartz committed suicide in January. And his death has inspired urgent questions about prosecutorial overreach; US Attorney Carmen Ortiz was aggressively prosecuting him, at the time, for downloading millions of academic articles with plans to distribute them freely on the web.

But the case has also touched off a broader debate about cyberspace and the law, with an immediate focus on the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). The government charged Swartz with 11 violations of the statute and two counts of wire fraud. Maximum penalties: 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines

Swartz's friends and allies say CFAA is a blunt relic of the pre-Internet era that threatened the hacker with disproportionate punishment and helped push him to his death. And now Segal, who forged a partnership with Swartz that outlasted the Congressional campaign, finds himself near the center of an effort to overhaul the law.

Swartz helped start the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which launched in the run-up to the 2010 election. And when the political action committee endorsed Segal, Swartz began traveling down from Boston to help out with the campaign.

He hung out at Segal's small, East Side headquarters, worked on strategy, and developed cheap tools — robo calls and robo polling — that kept the low-budget operation in the hunt.

After the election, Swartz split off from PCCC and joined with Segal to form advocacy group Demand Progress. The pair envisioned a broad, progressive program; Segal says the press has too narrowly cast Swartz, since his death, as an open information activist.

But it was an Internet freedom campaign — rallying opposition to the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act — that launched the group. "It's really difficult to predict whether something is going to go viral," Segal says, "and we were quite astonished that this one did."

In two to three weeks, 300,000 people signed on to the effort. And Swartz and Segal decided to stay — for the time being, at least — in the Internet activism space.

Demand Progress would go on to play an important role in the remarkable on-line uprising that killed two anti-piracy bills, known as SOPA and PIPA, in January 2012. But Swartz, who had long struggled with mood swings, was in a bad spot.

In July 2011 came news that a federal grand jury had indicted him for entering a computer wiring closet at MIT and downloading millions of articles from JSTOR, an archive of academic papers.

The pressure mounted. Swartz resisted a plea deal that would still brand him a felon. In January, his girlfriend found him hanging in his bedroom.

There was intense sorrow for his friends and family, but also anger. Whatever Swartz's struggles, Segal suggests, Ortiz's aggressive prosecution — and the law that made it possible — had pushed the hacker over the edge.

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