Aaron Swartz’s Suicide Triggers Response from Top U.S. Lawmakers

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Noah Berger / REUTERS

Aaron Swartz poses in a Borderland Books in San Francisco on February 4, 2008.

Aaron Swartz, the brilliant and mercurial young programmer who killed himself in Brooklyn last Friday, was memorialized in his hometown of Highland Park, Ill., Tuesday, as the shockwaves from his death reached Washington, D.C.

As Swartz’s family and friends were grieving in Chicago, several Capitol Hill lawmakers expressed sadness and confusion over his death. One prominent U.S. lawmaker, Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), said she would introduce reforms to change the federal law at the heart of the case.

In a bill called “Aaron’s Law,” Lofgren aims to amend the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), which Massachusetts prosecutors used to charge Swartz with over 30 years in prison. Swartz’s family has accused the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office with hounding the young activist over what they call a “victimless crime.” Specifically, Lofrgen’s bill would amend the existing law to distinguish between a terms of service violation and a federal data theft crime.

“Lofgren’s bill is a good start,” Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig told TIME in a phone interview Wednesday morning. Lessig eulogized Swartz at the funeral Tuesday. Like many of Swartz’s friends, Lessig hopes that something positive will come out of the young programmer’s passing, he said.

“The CFAA was the hook for the government’s bullying,” Lessig wrote on Reddit, the hugely popular Internet activist hub that Swartz helped launch. “This law would remove that hook. In a single line: no longer would it be a felony to breach a contract. Let’s get this done for Aaron — now.” (Read Lofgren’s bill here.)

(MOREAaron Swartz’s Suicide Prompts MIT Soul-Searching)

Swartz faced over 30 years in prison on federal data-theft charges for downloading articles from the subscription-based academic research service JSTOR. In 2011, Swartz allegedly broke into a secure MIT computer closet and hooked up a laptop in order to download JSTOR files, before he was arrested by local authorities. JSTOR later settled its civil complaint with Swartz, but MIT did not follow suit, giving Massachusetts federal prosecutors the implicit green light to go ahead with the prosecution, Lessig says.

“The charges were ridiculous and trumped-up,” Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) told The Hill newspaper. “It’s absurd that he was made a scapegoat. I would hope that this doesn’t happen to anyone else.” Polis called Swartz — who co-authored an early version of the popular Internet tool RSS at age 14 and would later become an early leader of Reddit – a “martyr.”

At the funeral, Swartz’s father Robert Swartz said his son was “killed by the government, and MIT betrayed all of its basic principles,” according to the Associated Press. On Sunday, MIT president L. Rafael Reif announced an internal investigation into the school’s involvement in Swartz’s suicide. Reif has asked Hal Abelson, a respected MIT professor, and a founding director of Creative Commons and the Free Software Foundation, to lead the probe.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said he has opened an investigation of the Justice Department’s case against Aaron Swartz, according to HuffPost. “I’m not condoning his hacking, but he’s certainly someone who worked very hard,” Issa told the news website.

“Had he been a journalist and taken that same material that he gained from MIT, he would have been praised for it. It would have been like the Pentagon Papers.” (Not exactly: The Pentagon Papers were classified federal government documents. Swartz was accused of accessing scholarly articles on a university network.)

(MORE: Aaron Swartz, Tech Prodigy and Internet Activist, Is Dead at 26)

Rep. Issa, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is a shrewd political operator who has worked with Internet activists in the past. Last year, Rep. Issa was instrumental in the defeat of controversial anti-piracy legislation, which Swartz worked to oppose. A conservative Republican, Issa has sensed the recent groundswell of Internet-based activism, and sought to align himself with it. Issa has made investigating U.S. government “over-reaching” a key part of his agenda.

Meanwhile, incoming Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren issued a statement praising Swartz. “When I met Aaron Swartz in 2010, I discovered a young man who was passionate, sharp, a little shy, and, above all, warm and good natured,” Warren said in a statement to HuffPost. “He seemed like the kind of person who couldn’t hurt a fly — he just had that kind of presence. Aaron made remarkable contributions to our world, and his advocacy for Internet freedom, social justice, and Wall Street reform demonstrated both the power of his ideas and the depth of his commitment. The world is a poorer place without Aaron.”

In statement on Reddit, Rep. Lofgren said she wants to reform the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) in order to “prevent what happened to Aaron from happening to other Internet users.” Lofgren, who represents Silicon Valley, is an outspoken voice on technology issues in the U.S. Congress.

“The government was able to bring such disproportionate charges against Aaron because of the broad scope of the wire fraud statute,” Lofgren said. “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.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Heymann, who works for Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, has faced criticism over his handling of the case. According to Swartz’s lawyer, Elliot Peters, Heymann was aiming for a “juicy looking computer crime cases and Aaron’s case, sadly for Aaron, fit the bill,” Peters told HuffPost. Peters told the website that he thought Heymann believed the Swartz case “was going to receive press and he was going to be a tough guy and read his name in the newspaper.”

28 comments
janesabre
janesabre

According to wikipedia, Heymann was also the prosecutor for another brilliant, and much younger person accused of hacking.  He was 15 when they arrested him and wanted to prosecute him as an adult.  The kid ended up committing suicide. Personally, I hope Ortiz and Heymann lose their careers and all professional credibility from this.  

But this problem is not isolated to Aaron Swartz's case.  I'm saddened he committed suicide but I understand how this system can really wear you down.  My son was arrested for an internet crime.  The police did a one-to-one connection to his computer without a warrant and downloaded stuff from his computer to build a case against him.  He has never done anything wrong before, and though I wish he wasn't involved in this activity at all, all he did was get stuff from the internet that was already out there.  He too caved and is now in prison.  We're appealing the case.  The whole experience was a nightmare.  

usageberle
usageberle

This is a terrible thing to happen. This troubled young man took his own life to be a martyr. But it does not make sense in face of a plea deal for 6 months in jail or less. So was it just madness or martyrdom for his religious or personal beliefs?

If it was martyrdom for his cause then he certainly has set the bar very high for getting things done. Maybe we can re-think people having to die in order to get things to change.

janesabre
janesabre

@usageberle They're lying about the sentence only being 6-months.  But even if it was only 6-months, he'd still have a felony and his life would be ruined.  I hate this system because it makes it impossible for people to start over.  It's like it's built to destroy people.  They threatened him with more than that multiple times, according to his attorney, and having first hand experience with this, I believe it.  It's a common tactic. And it is bullying in my opinion.  

indeed
indeed

I am truly grieved after reading this article.  What strikes me most is the fact that JStor, the scholarly article repository that Aaron "broke into" is at every, major college in the United States and exists for students' use. Anyone at the school had access to those documents, and they are intended for scholarly research. Oftentimes, a study is accessed by someone who doesn't agree with the material or findings and what they do with those findings is considered scholarly research. Here, we have a young man who was not a student of MIT, but was his use of the material any different than that of a student? Perhaps in the fact that he did not write a scholarly article challenging the material, but, in essence, how different is it, really? It seems to me that he was victimized because he brought the information into the mainstream to challenge it, instead of doing so behind the institutional walls of the college. That is hardly justification for the treatment the young man suffered. Our criminal justice system needs to think deeply about the path it pursues and work to make sure the punishment fits the crime. Zeal and zealotry are so closely tied together, we often lose site of which path we are on. 

khaldounbek
khaldounbek

I know Aron i met him online. and we had chat long time ago, I believe in his principles, and I thought he was a good guy,

he was fighting for the one concept the free knowledge movement for everyone everywhere
he believes in the power of knowledge to change the human life
thank you Aron, we will miss you

Everyone please sign the petitions to fire Ortiz and Heymann,
please vote for the freedom and human rights.
Please vote to fire the bitch

Here is the links

http://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/remove-united-states-district-attorney-carmen-ortiz-office-overreach-case-aaron-swartz/RQNrG1Ck

http://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/fire-assistant-us-attorney-steve-heymann/RJKSY2nb

Khaldoun Bek /
Syria

khaldounbek
khaldounbek

I know Aron i met him online. and we had chat long time ago, I believe in his principles, and I thought he was a good guy,
he was fighting for the one concept the free knowledge movement for everyone everywhere
he believes in the power of knowledge to change the human life
thank you Aron, we will miss you

Everyone please sign the petitions to fire Ortiz and Heymann,
please vote for the freedom and human rights.
Please vote to fire the bi........

Here is the links

http://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/remove-united-states-district-attorney-carmen-ortiz-office-overreach-case-aaron-swartz/RQNrG1Ck

http://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/fire-assistant-us-attorney-steve-heymann/RJKSY2nb

thank you Aron, we will miss you

Khaldoun Bek

stevefeather
stevefeather

While I certainly agree that 35 years is an extreme punishment, it is important to remember that theft should not be condoned.  It is unfortunate that this led to suicide and I am by no means trying to tarnish this mans reputation or character, but we should be careful not to sway too far away from declaring theft, of any material, as insignificant.  Reforms are needed to ensure punishment meets the crime appropriately.  I just hope that such reforms do not create an environment where we begin to protect the criminal more than the victim.

Papa_Pete
Papa_Pete like.author.displayName 1 Like

@stevefeather He didn't steal anything. The documents were open to all. His "crime" was downloading too many too fast.

No_Comment_or
No_Comment_or like.author.displayName 1 Like

This is merely the tip of the iceberg.  The US comprises 5% of the world's population, and has 25% of the world's prison population.  There have been lots of alarms raised on this issue over the decades, but the cowardly legislators have been too afraid of appearing soft on crime to address the miscarriage of justice that is taking place every day in the US criminal system. With 10 times the incarcerations in the US vs other industrialized nations, chances are the rate of false or unworthy imprisonment is insanely high in the US. This case exemplifies the exact manner in which this can and does take place.


For more information, see the innocence project, which now has mountains of evidence that our system of justice fails at much higher rates than we could of previously have imagined.

janesabre
janesabre

@No_Comment_or I know this first hand.  We were blind-sided when my son was arrested recently for looking at stuff he found on a P2P network.  The police logged into his computer using a 1-to-1 connection without a warrant to get evidence and build a case against him.  They arrested him and threatened him with over 15 years of prison time.  He had never done anything wrong before and he really didn't do anything wrong this time.  I mean, he didn't create the files and didn't' do anything to anyone -- he looked at files that were already out there.  He eventually caved in, and they gave him almost five years of prison time.   I had no idea how bad this system was.  It is so punitive and out to destroy.  And that's just the beginning.  Now we are dealing with what it's like for him to be in prison and what's going on there.  It's a nightmare.

chrysler5thavenue
chrysler5thavenue like.author.displayName 1 Like

Wow, what pieces of garbage these officials are.  How did self-serving, undiscerning people like these become entrusted w/ the power to destroy lives unchecked? Who is responsible for putting them in office? The elected officials who gave them their positions of authority should be held accountable as well.

kelly.lorne
kelly.lorne like.author.displayName 1 Like

The Whitehouse petition to have DOJ Attorney Steve Heymann removed is here 

https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/fire-assistant-us-attorney-steve-heymann/RJKSY2nb

For the love of all that is good in this world, PLEASE SIGN!


NaveedXVO
NaveedXVO like.author.displayName 1 Like

@kelly.lorne Signed! Hopefully the law is changed so that petty theft doesn't result in 35 year prison terms in the future. But still we shouldn't give people, like Steve Heymann, so morally bankrupt and unaccountable to the people, so much power in our government.

Corriehubbs
Corriehubbs

@NaveedXVO @kelly.lorne i sign it too. but my concerns is that the system is sick and it rewards instead of stops bullying prosecutors like Steve Heymann - research online your will find that he already contributed to another young man's death in recent years and nothing stopped him from doing the same to Aaron Swartz.

kumarswamy
kumarswamy like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Wow, so he used this Brilliant man to self serving interests. What a psycho he is. He should not be in the job.

kumarswamy
kumarswamy like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

I don't know if he is fit to be employed by Justice department if he has Mental health issues. He seems to me like a psychotic person.

Corriehubbs
Corriehubbs

@kumarswamy i am sure plenty of prosecutors are true public servant in the practice of law. but its frightening to read that there are plenty people just like Steven Heymann serving in these kind of powerful positions, and apparently that bullying a citizen like Aaron (innocent or not) to unfair pleas is also a common practice in our country. only this time it got our attention because the suicide of high profile victim whose work appreciated by thousands or millions. 

maryfreefromretribution
maryfreefromretribution

In my opinion, this is another blatant example of a politically-and-law school-connected prosecutor, one who is without the wherewithal and soul to practice law in the finest traditions.  Rather, because of his family connections, he is a permanent fixture in a protected job by a gutless United States Attorney.  

readerviewer
readerviewer like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

Aaron Swartz's passing is a great loss.

rebelready
rebelready like.author.displayName 1 Like

Aaron was part of the movement that wanted access to court documents free to everyone; access to court documents means more than an opinion rendered by the court (sometimes rendered by the court). NOW THERE IS THE PROBLEM - how soon would the world be aware of the number of fraudulent documents that are routinely entered into PACER by corrupt court staff, and yes, corrupt judges with world-wide free access to ALL federal court documents? How soon would it be before the world became aware that the US Courts are not about truth and justice but simply a huge racketeering enterprise set up to pad the pockets of select “elite” attorneys?  The fact that the tax payer has to support these criminals while they pull off the largest dishonest service fraud scheme the US has ever seen is more than clearly a good reason to torture this young man.  So let’s RECAP on the corrupt and make public access to ALL COURT RECORDS fly full force.  So in actuality Carmen Ortiz not only needs to be removed from office but she belongs in front of a Grand Jury along with the entire 1 Court House Way crowd.
http://www.aarongreenspan.com/...


avian
avian like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

U.S. Attorney Stephen Heymann is the modern day Inspector Jabert (from Les Miserables).

Chin
Chin

@avian and the trolls who call Aaron 'crazy' and his work 'stealing' are like Vernon Dursley

attorneyGrandRapids
attorneyGrandRapids

Maybe is a good tiome to revisit the type of convictions secured through plea bargaining from those fearing the devastating power the US atys are given and use to anihilate people who did nothing legally wrong but got, somehow, in the way of the US prosecutors. Check US v. Sandoval in Michigan. 14 years career stopped and conviction for Obstruction of Justice. The basis? lying to a federal judge? Under this case of US v. Sandoval, every attorney could be sent  to prison. 

kay.sieverding
kay.sieverding like.author.displayName 1 Like

I think DOJ tried to get me to commit suicide. I don't have a criminal record and DOJ didn't charge me w a crime.  What DOJ did do is lock me up without a charge, a bail hearing or an evidentiary hearing.  3 times for 5 months total. Then DOJ opposed an evidentiary hearing as to whether or not I should be locked up and this damaged my reputation and every element of my life.

I'm also a MIT grad and I think that is one reason why I got locked up -- that being an MIT grad made me think I could prevail eventually and basically gave me courage.

Chin
Chin

Heymann is reading his name in the press, though perhaps not as he expected