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.”