Justice Dept. Still Under Pressure for Answers About Swartz Prosecution

Influential lawmakers on Capitol Hill aren’t letting the Justice Department rest after the January suicide of an Internet activist.

Earlier this month, friends and supporters of Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz gathered in Washington to eulogize his life and to call for changes to legislation that federal officials used to prosecute him – two years after the beginning of an ordeal that ended with a tragic loss.

Aaron Swartz, a 26-year-old computer programmer and cyber activist, faced up to 50 years in prison and a $1 million fine for gaining entry into a closet at the Massachusetts Technology Institute and connecting a laptop to the university’s network to download millions of articles provided by the nonprofit JSTOR – a subscription-only service for distributing academic and literary journals.

On July 4, 2011, federal prosecutors charged Swartz with four felony counts: wire fraud, computer fraud, theft of information from a computer, and recklessly damaging a computer. A superseding indictment filed last year would increase the number of felony counts from four to 13.

Swartz turned over hard drives containing millions of documents to federal enforcement officials, and JSTOR declined to pursue any civil litigation against him.

Nevertheless, the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, Carmen M. Ortiz, refused to drop the charges, saying “stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data, or dollars.”

The case was brought under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), a federal law passed in 1984 to enhance the government’s ability to prosecute hackers. The law makes any unauthorized access into a protected network or computer a federal crime and permits harsh penalties for those convicted. In addition, failure to adhere to the terms of service that websites, applications, and Internet service providers ask their users to accept is considered a form of computer fraud that can be prosecuted as a felony.

The Wall Street Journal reported that prosecutors offered a plea bargain to Swartz. If he pled guilty to the charges, he would receive a sentence of 7-8 months in jail, but if the case went to trial and Swartz was convicted, prosecutors would seek a prison sentence of at least 7 years.

For a year and a half, Swartz had been under indictment, which according to his girlfriend had brought mental and emotional exhaustion upon him.

Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, girlfriend of the late Swartz, made clear in a blog post her belief that Swartz did not take his life because of depression.

“I believe Aaron’s death was caused by exhaustion, by fear, and by uncertainty. I believe that Aaron’s death was caused by a persecution and a prosecution that had already wound on for 2 years (what happened to our right to a speedy trial?) and had already drained all of his financial resources,” wrote Stinebrickner-Kauffman in a recent post on her Tumblr.

Stinebrickner-Kauffman began a White House petition to fire Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Heymann, one of the leading prosecutors involved in Swartz’s case. The petition has already cleared 25,000 signatures, but it will need at least 100,000 to elicit a response from the White House. A similar petition started on Jan. 13 to remove Carmen M. Ortiz has over 50,000 signatures, which meets the previous threshold of 25,000 signatures – changed by the administration on Jan. 15 to the higher minimum.

Swartz’s death has not only prompted responses from progressive and activist groups, such as Anonymous, but also from libertarians and conservatives alike.

It was evident during his memorial that Swartz’s legacy is a point of dispute among his supporters. When Berin Szoka, president of the libertarian-leaning nonprofit TechFreedom, remarked that he does not condone what Swartz did, even though he believes the law that punished Swartz is unjust, many in the crowd repeatedly interrupted Szoka during his speech until Stinebrickner-Kauffman intervened and asked the audience to be quiet.