House demands DOJ briefing on prosecution of Aaron Swartz

RIP Aaron SwartzU.S. House officials have called for a Justice Department briefing on the computer fraud prosecution of Reddit co-founder and RSS developer Aaron Swartz

The 26-year old Internet activist, who was a fierce opponent of the Stop Online Piracy Act, was found dead in early January from an apparent suicide his family called “the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach,” according to a CBS News report.

Swartz was charged in 2011 with computer fraud, accused of illegally downloading and distributing subscription-based academic articles from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that he felt should be free and open to the public.

 A letter from House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa and ranking member Elijah Cummings accused Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz of aggressively pursuing the case, charging Swartz with four felony counts of computer theft in 2011. A year later, additional charges were filed. According to the letter:

Prosecutors filed a superseding indictment with thirteen felony counts. It appears the prosecutors increased the felony counts by providing specific dates for each action, turning each marked date into its own felony charge, and significantly increasing Mr. Swartz’s maximum criminal exposure to up to 50 years imprisonment and $1 million in fines.

“Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars,” Ortiz said, according to the letter.

“Many questions have been raised about the appropriate level of punishment sought by prosecutors for Mr. Swartz’s alleged offenses,” Issa and Cummings wrote, saying they also want to know whether Swartz’s opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act was “among the factors considered.”

A group of hacker-activists known as Anonymous took over the website of the agency responsible for sentencing guidelines Saturday, threatening to release private U.S. Justice Department data to “avenge” Swartz’s death. The site’s home page had a video message from the group, saying that with Swartz’s death, “a line was crossed.”

Read the letter from the House Oversight Committee here.


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