Details of the Justice Department’s treatment of an Internet activist who committed suicide has stoked fresh outrage on Capitol Hill, with the chairman of the House Oversight Government and Reform Committee demanding answers from Attorney General Eric Holder about the findings of a probe into the death of Aaron Swartz.
In January 2011, Reddit co-founder and RSS creator Swartz, who lobbied for freedom of information on the web, was arrested for downloading millions of academic articles from the digital library Journal Storage (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. “Aaron returned the data he had in his possession and JSTOR settled any civil claims we might have had against him in June 2011,” JSTOR said in a statement “mourning this tragic loss” after Swartz’s death.
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.
The news initially sparked the interest of Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), a foe of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) along with Swartz, and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who queried Holder about the prosecution of the young web whiz both in a January letter and at a March Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
“Does it strike you as odd that the government would indict someone for crimes that would carry penalties of up to 35 years in prison and million dollar fines, and then offer him a three or four month prison sentence?” Cornyn asked.
“I think that’s a good use of prosecutorial discretion…” Holder responded.
“So you don’t consider this a case of prosecutorial overreach or misconduct?” pressed Cornyn.
“No,” Holder replied.
MIT, whose archive was hacked while Swartz was a fellow at Harvard (which gave him access to JSTOR), launched an internal investigation into the case.
The report, issued July 30, notes disagreement between the school and the U.S. Attorney’s Office on how Swartz would be treated.
“MIT’s counsel noted that no one at the Institute was looking forward to the time, disruption and stress involved in testifying at hearings and trial. The prosecutor’s response was that it disturbed him whenever a defendant ‘systematically re-victimized’ the victim, and that was what Swartz was doing by dragging MIT through hearings and a trial. He analogized attacking MIT’s conduct in the case to attacking a rape victim based on sleeping with other men,” the report states.
“MIT’s counsel stated that, while the government might believe that jail time was appropriate in this case, the government should not be under the impression that MIT wanted a jail sentence for Aaron Swartz. The prosecutor responded that the government believed that some custody was appropriate. He said the government had to consider not only the views of the immediate victims, but also general deterrence of others.”