It’s been four months since Aaron Swartz, the celebrated computer prodigy and Internet activist, committed suicide in his Brooklyn apartment, prompting an outpouring of grief from his family, friends, and many others in the Internet community. Swartz had been facing federal felony charges that carried a maximum penalty of 35 years in prison for downloading academic articles from a computer server at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In the wake of Swartz’s death, MIT announced an internal investigation into the university’s role in the matter, and top U.S. lawmakers criticized the Justice Department’s handling of the case. Now, as MIT prepares to release its report, Aaron’s father Robert Swartz is speaking out about what he calls the “injustice” of his son’s prosecution, the role that MIT played, and the legal reforms he’d like to see ensure that no one else is threatened with the harsh punishment his son faced.
“For the U.S. Attorney to argue that Aaron was a criminal who had done terrible things was just wrong,” Robert Swartz told TIME this week during an interview in midtown Manhattan. “The prosecutor was completely determined to use every means to intimidate Aaron and make his life miserable.” The pain over Aaron’s death is still raw for his father: Several times during the interview, Robert Swartz paused, closed his eyes, and slowly shook his head, before continuing.
Aaron’s case has become a flashpoint in the growing debate over the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), a 1980s-era law originally designed to punish and deter attempts to break into Cold War-era government computer systems like NORAD (think WarGames), as well as financial institutions like banks. Critics say the law has been twisted by U.S. prosecutors to bully and intimidate security researchers, journalists, and activists with extremely harsh federal prison sentences.
Robert Swartz, a 63-year-old technology consultant who lives in Highland Park, Ill., hopes that his son’s death will spur lawmakers and MIT officials to act. “I’d like to see the CFAA reformed,” he said. “I’d like MIT to recognize the mistakes they made and make changes so that these kinds of things can’t happen again. I’d like to see open access to academic journals. And I’d like to see reform of the criminal justice system so that there is once again a presumption of innocence.” Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, whose office prosecuted Aaron, has insisted that her team’s conduct was appropriate.
In 2011, Aaron was charged with breaking into a server cabinet at MIT and downloading over four million articles from the subscription-based academic research service JSTOR. According to Robert Swartz, Aaron did not believe he had committed a crime. At the time, Swartz was a research fellow at Harvard, which gave him access to JSTOR’s database. Furthermore, MIT had a very open guest access policy, as described by Tim McGovern, MIT Manager of Network Security & Support Services, which allowed visitors virtually unfettered access to its network. It’s unclear what Swartz intended to do with the articles, but even the prosecutors acknowledged there was no evidence that he intended to profit financially. Swartz believed deeply that academic research — especially research funded by U.S. taxpayers — should be available to the public.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Heymann, who works for Ortiz, aggressively prosecuted the case, insisting that Swartz plead guilty to felony charges and face jail time. Swartz’s lawyer Elliot Peters told the Associated Press that as recently as two days before Swartz’s death, prosecutors were demanding that Swartz spend six months in prison and plead guilty to 13 felony offenses in order to avoid a trial. Swartz was also facing time in a halfway house or home detention, as well a two-year ban on using a computer. According to Peters, Heymann threatened to seek seven years in prison for Swartz if the case went to trial.
Robert Swartz told TIME that it was the prospect of being branded as a felon that most haunted his son. Aaron had a deep sense of civic responsibility, and the prospect of being labelled a felon for a crime he didn’t believe he had committed was something Aaron simply could not accept. “He wanted to make the world better from inside the system, and they don’t let felons work in the White House,” Swartz’s friend Quinn Norton told The New Yorker. “He said those exact words to me.” On Friday Jan. 11, Aaron, 26, hung himself in his Brooklyn apartment.
MIT, one of the nation’s most prominent and respected universities, has come under criticism for its handling of the Swartz case. In July 2011, JSTOR said it would drop any civil claims against Swartz. According to Lawrence Lessig, who runs Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, where Swartz was a fellow in 2011, MIT fell short by not following JSTOR’s lead. Had MIT simply unplugged Swartz’s laptop and kicked him off campus, prosecutors would not have had a case. Instead, MIT brought in the New England Electronic Crimes Task Force, and three hours later the U.S. Secret Service was on campus. “It’s everyone’s responsibility to fight the government when the government is doing something unjust,” Robert Swartz told TIME. “MIT failed.”
MIT president L. Rafael Reif has appointed Hal Abelson, a respected professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and a founding director of Creative Commons and the Free Software Foundation, to lead the investigation into MIT’s actions leading up to Swartz’s suicide. “Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT,” Reif wrote in a note to his community. Abelson is expected to release his report in June.
In the wake of Swartz’s death, Stephen Heymann, the federal prosecutor, received “harassing and potentially threatening” messages, according to a government court filling cited by Wired.com. Heymann’s home address, personal telephone number, and the names of family members and friends were posted online, and his Facebook page was hacked, according to the filing. Heymann also received a postcard in the mail depicting his father’s head in a guillotine. ”I completely and unequivocally condemn the harassment that Steve has endured,” Robert Swartz told TIME.
Robert Swartz believes that prosecutors were intent on making an example out of his son, amid what appears to be an intensifying federal crackdown against so-called computer hackers. Swartz’s lawyer Elliot Peters told HuffPost that Heymann was aiming for “juicy looking computer crime cases and Aaron’s case, sadly for Aaron, fit the bill.” Peters said 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.”
Robert Swartz and his family are still grieving the loss of their son and brother. “This is an immense tragedy,” he said. “Aaron is dead and he will never come back.” But Aaron’s father hopes that something positive will emerge from his son’s death. “The criminal justice system is broken and it needs to be fixed,” Robert Swartz told TIME. “It’s a system where 95% of the cases end in plea agreements and there is no longer a presumption of innocence. Prosecutors need to realize once again that their job is to uphold the law rather than use their largely unchecked power to win by any means or force the innocent to plead guilty.”