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Aaron Swartz's suicide continues to ripple through Congress

February 05, 2013|By Matt Pearce
  • Internet activist Aaron Swartz, shown Jan. 30, 2009, photo, killed himself last month.
Internet activist Aaron Swartz, shown Jan. 30, 2009, photo, killed himself… (Michael Francis McElroy…)

Aaron Swartz may change the Internet yet again, even in death, with the help of lawmakers who have expressed a fondness for breaking the law.

At a Washington, D.C., memorial Monday night, members of Congress and loved ones gathered to remember Swartz, who committed suicide on Jan. 11 while facing years in prison for mass-downloading scholarly articles.

Swartz had already reshaped the Web experiences of millions by co-creating Reddit and the information-distribution service RSS. By turns, speakers at the Cannon House Office Building compared Swartz to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Apple founder Steve Jobs, and 20th century British programmer Alan Turing -- with Swartz as yet another cybergenius whose ambitions carried him to the law's edge.

Swartz hanged himself in New York while under indictment for purportedly breaking the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Prosecutors had hinted he might face decades in federal prison for violating a law that congressional speakers at the memorial said they planned to change.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), leader of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has opened an inquiry into Swartz's prosecution by the U.S. Attorney's office in Massachussetts. Issa told the audience, "We suspect some of it had to do with ambition, big prosecutions, smart people being brought down."

Issa related an anecdote about selling cookies as a child to fund summer-camp trips, in which he'd punched buzzers on an apartment building door until a stranger let him in.

"I broke the law," Issa said, adding later, “If everyone who ever tried to guess a combination on a safe -- or a password, or looked at a diary, endlessly deciding whether to open it, or a drawer that was half-opened -- [if everyone] was brought up on charges on the maximum value of what could have been the damages, then our jails… would in fact be beyond overflowing.”

Democratic Colorado Rep. Jared Polis criticized Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz's prosecution as "a perversity of justice."

"What I hope comes out of this terrible travesty is a policy change -- an awakening, something that will prevent this type of travesty from occurring to anybody else in this country," Polis said.

Two legislators attending, Democratic Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), have cosponsored legislation called "Aaron's Law" that is intended to remove terms-of-service breaches from punishment under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and wire fraud statutes.

Swartz had planned to republish the expensive scholarly articles online in a place where they'd be available for free. Swartz previously said the information belonged to the world.

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) recalled Swartz's work as an intern. "Aaron wanted to rock the boat, not just for the sake of boat-rocking, but for the sake of improving the lives of ordinary people," he said.

Grayson compared Swartz to Alan Turing, a crack codebreaker who was prosecuted by the British government in 1952 for being gay, which was against the law. "I’m sure there were people at that point in those days who said, ‘The law is the law – if you disobey the law, you go to prison,' " Grayson said.

After Turing was forced to accept estrogen treatments in exchange for avoiding prison, he killed himself.

“What we engage in is human sacrifice," Grayson said. "We sacrifice their lives in the misguided sense that we need to protect ourselves from them, when instead, it’s the exact opposite.”

Swartz's father, Bob Swartz -- who previously spoke with the Los Angeles Times about his son's death -- cited a long list of other computer innovators who had, at times, broken the law, or came close.

“Are we a country that wants to encourage our best and brightest, who see things differently?" he asked. "Or do we want to crush them?"

matt.pearce@latimes.com

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