Prosecutor defends actions in Aaron Swartz case

U.S. Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz
U.S. Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz

The U.S. attorney who directed the prosecution of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, who took his life last Friday, made her first public comments about the case, saying her office's "conduct was appropriate in bringing and handling" the charges.

"As a parent and a sister, I can only imagine the pain felt by the family and friends of Aaron Swartz, and I want to extend my heartfelt sympathy to everyone who knew and loved this young man," said Carmen M. Ortiz, U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, in a statement

"I know that there is little I can say to abate the anger felt by those who believe that this office's prosecution of Mr. Swartz was unwarranted and somehow led to the tragic result of him taking his own life."

The U.S. Attorney's office, and Ortiz, specifically, are under fire for bringing the case against Swartz, including an online petition effort to oust her. 

Swartz, 26, was a passionate advocate for making public documents and as much information as possible available on the Web. He was indicted in 2011 by the federal government on charges of wire fraud and computer fraud. In an attempt to provide free access to JSTOR, a subscription service for science and literacy journals on MIT's network, Swartz downloaded nearly the entire library of 4.8 million articles and documents to make it publicly accessible.

Aaron Swartz
Aaron Swartz

"Aaron's death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach," Swartz's family and partner said in a statement last weekend.

Ortiz said that is not the case. "The career prosecutors handling this matter took on the difficult task of enforcing a law they had taken an oath to uphold, and did so reasonably," she said in the statement. 

"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 discussions were ongoing about a sentence that would have been "six months in a low security setting," and that "At no time did this office ever seek — or ever tell Mr. Swartz's attorneys that it intended to seek — maximum penalties under the law," which could have been several years in prison.

In the meantime, California congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat whose district includes Silicon Valley, is proposing a bill, dubbed "Aaron's Law," that would change the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act that Swartz was charged under, to exclude terms-of-service violations.

"It looks like the government used the vague wording of those laws to claim that violating an online service’s user agreement or terms of service is a violation of the CFAA and the wire fraud statute," Lofgren said on Reddit, where she floated the proposal. "Using the law in this way could criminalize many everyday activities and allow for outlandishly severe penalties."

Lofgren said the law should be changed to "prevent what happened to Aaron from happening to other Internet users."

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