Criminal Justice

Internet activist's suicide spurs criticism of US Attorney


The suicide of “hactivist” Aaron Swartz on Friday is shining a harsh spotlight on prosecution decisions by U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, who had charged the 26-year-old computer programmer with 13 felonies for allegedly accessing a database of scholarly papers with the intent to make them accessible for free.

Swartz, 26, was a Stanford dropout and a former fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. An open-records advocate, he helped create the social news site Reddit and the content distribution tool RSS, report the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times blog Nation Now. Ortiz had accused Swartz of breaking into a computer-wiring closet at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to download much of the JSTOR database of academic papers, with the intent to share the information online.

Swartz turned over a hard drive with the documents, and JSTOR did not pursue the case, the New York Times says. But Ortiz obtained an indictment, saying in a press release that “stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.” If convicted, Swartz faced a possible sentence of up to 35 years in prison, the Times says. (TechDirt puts the potential sentence at 50 years.)

Swartz’s family and girlfriend issued a statement that said the suicide was “the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach,” Nation Now says. Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig also criticized the “bullying” prosecution at his blog, Lessig Blog, v2.

Lessig writes that Swartz had consulted him as a friend and a lawyer, and after Lessig’s obligations to Harvard created a conflict, he continued as a friend. He believes that if the government’s allegations are correct, Swartz’s actions were at least morally wrong. “I get wrong,” Lessig wrote. “But I also get proportionality.” And Swartz “is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying.”

“The question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a ‘felon,’ ” Lessig writes. “For in the 18 months of negotiations, that was what he was not willing to accept, and so that was the reason he was facing a million dollar trial in April—his wealth bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge. And so as wrong and misguided and f—ing sad as this is, I get how the prospect of this fight, defenseless, made it make sense to this brilliant but troubled boy to end it.

“Fifty years in jail, charges our government. Somehow, we need to get beyond the ‘I’m right so I’m right to nuke you’ ethics that dominates our time. That begins with one word: Shame.

“One word, and endless tears.”

Prior coverage:

ABAJournal.com: “Ex Harvard Ethics Fellow Accused of Hacking Into MIT Network, Stealing 4M Docs with Intent to Share”

ABAJournal.com: “FBI Probed Programmer Who Downloaded Pacer Docs for Free Access”

Additional coverage:

New York Times: “Swartz Suicide Fuels Argument Over 1986 Computer Law”

Associated Press: “Mass. lawyer says he told federal prosecutors Internet activist Swartz was suicide risk”

Updated on Jan. 15 to provide additional coverage.

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