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Did Holder’s Department Drive an Internet Pioneer to His Death?

Cornyn has questions — lots of them — for the attorney general. Issa is investigating. And one Dem warns it could happen to someone else.

by
Bridget Johnson

Bio

January 18, 2013 - 6:10 pm
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In January 2011, Reddit co-founder, RSS creator, and Internet-freedom activist Aaron Swartz was arrested for downloading millions of academic articles from JSTOR in protest of the weighty fees charged for accessing articles, and those dollars going to publishers instead of writers.

“We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world,” Swartz wrote in 2008. “We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks.”

JSTOR declined to pursue any civil action against Swartz, and even eventually made millions of its articles accessible to the public free of charge. MIT, whose archive was hacked while Swartz was a fellow at Harvard (which gave him access to JSTOR), was less forgiving.

The Justice Department, though, slapped Swartz with charges including wire fraud and computer fraud, altogether carrying the possibility of 35 years behind bars and up to a $1 million fine. Prosecutors eventually offered Swartz a deal to avoid trial in which he’d have to plead guilty to all 13 charges and spend six months behind bars.

Two days later, on Jan. 11, 2013, Swartz hung himself in his Brooklyn apartment. He was 26 years old.

His grieving father, Bob Swartz, told the Los Angeles Times that people should know “the evidence showed clearly that Aaron did not break the law, that the network was open, that access was not unauthorized by MIT, and that he was not guilty of any crime.”

“He was killed by the government,” he declared at his son’s funeral.

Now allies of Internet freedom on Capitol Hill are going after Attorney General Eric Holder for the prosecution of Swartz.

“I’m not condoning his hacking, but he’s certainly someone who worked very hard,” House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) told the Huffington Post. “Had he been a journalist and taken that same material that he gained from MIT, he would have been praised for it. It would have been like the Pentagon Papers.”

Issa said he’s assigned an investigator to the case to gather the facts before proceeding further.

Swartz and Issa were allies in opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and Issa praised Swartz’s work toward “open government and free access to the people” — including in the defeat of SOPA, which would have given the government broad powers to block Internet content, in the last Congress.

The GOP Senate whip took the case straight to Holder today.

John Cornyn (R-Texas) said he was “saddened” to learn of Swartz’s death.

“Mr. Swartz was, among other things, a brilliant technologist and a committed activist for the causes in which he believed – including, notably, the freedom of information. His death, at the young age of twenty-six, was tragic,” Cornyn wrote to Holder.

“As you are doubtless aware, Mr. Swartz was facing an aggressive prosecution by the Department of Justice when he took his own life. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts accused him of breaking into the computer networks of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and downloading without authorization thousands of academic articles from a subscription service. While the subscription service did not support a prosecution, in July 2011 the U.S. Attorney’s office indicted him on four counts of fraud and computer crimes, charges that reportedly could have resulted in up to 35 years imprisonment and a $1 million dollar fine. This past September, the U.S. Attorney’s office filed a superseding indictment charging Mr. Swartz with thirteen felony counts and the prospect of even longer imprisonment and greater fines,” he continued.

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