Aaron Swartz Suicide Puts Spotlight on Harsh Prosecution of Cybercrimes [Updated]

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Photo: Chris Stewart/Corbis

Family and friends of RSS creator and Internet activist Aaron Swartz have been unambiguous about the government's role in his suicide last week: "Aaron's death is not simply a personal tragedy," they said in a statement. "It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. attorney's office and at M.I.T. contributed to his death."

The 26-year-old was facing thirteen federal felony charges for breaking into a closet at MIT and downloading millions of academic papers he believed should be free from JSTOR, a crime that might've put him away for 35 years on top of millions in fines, and one pursued steadfastly by the Justice Department even after JSTOR declined to press charges. Now the prosecutor on the case — and the law he was attempting to enforce — are facing fresh scrutiny from all sides.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Heymann, who works in the office of Carmen Ortiz and reportedly pushed for jail time for Swartz, was also involved in another cybercrime case that ended in suicide, Buzzfeed reports. In 2008, accused hacker Jonathan James wrote in his suicide note, "I have no faith in the 'justice' system. Perhaps my actions today, and this letter, will send a stronger message to the public. Either way, I have lost control over this situation, and this is my only way to regain control. [...] sitting in jail for 20, 10, or even 5 years for a crime I didn't commit is not me winning. I die free."  

Swartz's girlfriend described a similar mind-set to the Los Angeles Times. "I was never as worried about him as the last few days of his life, and there's no doubt in my mind that this wouldn't have happened if it hadn't been for the overreaching prosecution," said Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman. "He couldn't face another day of, 'Have you done this, have you asked people for money.' I think he literally rather would have been dead."

At the heart of his case was the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the New York Times' Bits blog notes, which made it illegal to access a computer without "authorization." Marcia Hoffman, a lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, wrote yesterday that the "Draconcian" law's "vague language, broad reach, and harsh punishments combine to create a powerful weapon for overeager prosecutors to unleash on people they don't like." A White House petition in the wake of Swartz's death calls for reform of the "outdated" act.

On the other hand, Orin Kerff, a law professor at George Washington University, writes that Swartz's prosecution was based on "a fair reading of the law. None of the charges involved aggressive readings of the law or any apparent prosecutorial overreach."

Still, MIT's president has called for "a thorough analysis" of the university's involvement in the case, while the U.S. Attorney's office has clammed up, saying only "we want to respect the privacy of the family and do not feel it is appropriate to comment on the case at this time." Yesterday, they officially dropped the charges against Swartz, citing his death.

"I get wrong," wrote Swartz's friend Lawrence Lessig. "But I also get proportionality. And if you don't get both, you don't deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you."

Update: The Guardian reports that Tom Dolan, an IBM exec and the husband of U.S. attorney Carmen Ortiz, tweeted about the case before deleting his account. "Truly incredible that in their own son's obit they blame others for his death and make no mention of the 6 month offer," he wrote, in reference to recent plea negotiations. Ortiz's office had no comment on Dolan's opinion.