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U.S. House watchdogs want explanation of Aaron Swartz prosecution

January 29, 2013|By Matt Pearce | This post has been updated and corrected. See the note below for details.
  • Roy Singham, founder and chairman of ThoughtWorks, speaks during the memorial service for Aaron Swartz in New York.
Roy Singham, founder and chairman of ThoughtWorks, speaks during the memorial… (Mary Altaffer / Associated…)

Two of Congress' top watchdogs have asked the Justice Department to explain its prosecution of Aaron Swartz, a popular hacktivist who committed suicide Jan. 11.

Swartz, 26, was facing the possibility of years in prison for downloading millions of academic articles from a pricey scholarly database, JSTOR, via the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's network.

JSTOR declined to press charges, but U.S. attorneys went ahead with a prosecution anyway. After the cofounder of the social news site Reddit died, his family and girlfriend said the U.S. attorney's office in Boston had "hounded" Swartz to his death.

The ensuing backlash -- from both critics of U.S. computer-crimes laws and of aggressive prosecutorial tactics -- has now drawn formal bipartisan involvement from Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the top Republican and the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, respectively.

In a Monday letter to U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. (obtained and posted online by CNET), Issa and Cummings requested a briefing on the decision to prosecute the case from Justice Department officials by Feb. 4.

"Many questions have been raised about the appropriate level of punishment sought by prosecutors for Mr. Swartz's alleged offenses, and how the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, cited in 11 of 13 counts against Mr. Swartz, should apply under similar circumstances," the pair wrote in their letter; they noted that prosecutors had filed amended charges that upped the case's maximum penalties to 50 years in prison.

In their request, the lawmakers asked to know what influenced prosecutors' decision to charge Swartz the way they did; whether Swartz was being singled out for his open-Web advocacy; how the charges compared with those in similar cases; what plea deals were offered and why; and whether there was evidence that Swartz had committed other hacking.

The U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, Carmen Ortiz, has defended her office's prosecution of Swartz and thought that a proffered plea deal for six months of prison time was appropriate.

[Updated, 2:58 p.m., Jan. 29: A spokeswoman for Ortiz referred questions to a Justice Department spokesman, who confirmed to the Los Angeles Times that the department had received the letter from Issa and Cummings and was reviewing it.]

A similar letter was sent to Holder on Jan. 18 by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who asked whether the prosecution of Swartz was retaliation for his abundant open-records requests.

One such request turned up records from an FBI inquiry on whether Swartz had broken any laws by mass-downloading records from PACER, the federal government's court-records service, which has a fee-based access for public filings. As with the JSTOR articles, Swartz had sought to republish the documents online and without pay walls.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) has proposed legislation called Aaron's Law that would modify the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act --  which prohibits "having knowingly accessed a computer without authorization or exceeding authorized access" -- to modify what some say are the law's draconian punishments.

[For the Record, 11:15 a.m. Feb. 24: The photo caption in an earlier version of this post identified Roy Singham as founder and chairman of Freedom to Connect. Singham founded ThoughtWorks. Freedom to Connect was founded by David Isenberg.]

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matt.pearce@latimes.com

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