Aaron Swartz and His Intolerable Prosecution

Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman has reportedly said that Aaron Swartz committed suicide because of the stress of his prosecution for downloading academic articles from JSTOR at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Swartz’s family released a statement with Stinebrickner-Kauffman late the next day and said Swartz’s death was the product of prosecutorial overreach for “an alleged crime that had no victims”. They also faulted MIT for not offering support in his legal battles and not standing up for “its own community’s most cherished principles.”

Carmen Ortiz, the US federal prosecutor handling Swartz’s case, responded that:

her office was enforcing the law “reasonably.” Ortiz said that the office never told Swartz’s attorney’s that they intended to seek the maximum penalties.

“The prosecutors recognized that there was no evidence against Mr Swartz indicating that he committed his acts for personal financial gain, and they recognized that his conduct – while a violation of the law – did not warrant the severe punishments authorized by Congress and called for by the sentencing guidelines in appropriate cases,” Ortiz said.

Swartz was charged with 13 counts under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (1984). He could have faced over 30 years in prison along with a million-dollar fine, and was recently refused a plea bargain with no jail time (he would have had to a take a plea bargain with a six-month sentence).

The charges came because Swartz had used the MIT network to download over four million articles, which was deemed to have been too many. JSTOR charges nonacademics for access and Swartz had put a laptop in a closet at MIT without permission.

It has been reported that the civil-liberties attorney Harvey Silverglate believes that “[Swartz] was being made into a highly visible lesson … He was enhancing the careers of a group of career prosecutors and a very ambitious — politically-ambitious — U.S. attorney who loves to have her name in lights.”

Additionally, it has been reported in Wired that:

The government … has interpreted the anti-hacking provisions to include activities such as violating a website’s terms of service or a company’s computer usage policy.… The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in limiting reach of the CFAA, said that violations of employee contract agreements and websites’ terms of service were better left to civil lawsuits.

Swartz is remembered for his accomplishments in combating laws intended to impede the sharing of information. He assisted in defeating bills that would give broad authority to the executive branch. He is accredited with leading grassroots efforts against the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act.

More on the prosecution can be found on the Guardian and Counterpunch.