Reports have emerged from the Congressional investigation into the DOJ’s prosecution of Aaron Swartz that suggest that a DOJ representative admitted that part of the reason they were determined to get Swartz to plead guilty to a felony and serve jail time was because they feared a public backlash over his initial arrest.
According to a Huffington Post article that quoted several sources, this DOJ representative confessed that they feared there would be a huge public reaction and outcry over Swartz initial arrest if they could not show a felony conviction and a prison sentence.
Some congressional staffers left the briefing with the understanding that the prosecutors felt they had to convict Swartz and put him in jail if only briefly, as a means of justifying the charges brought against him in the first place.
The other theory to emerge from the hearing, is the idea that the prosecution went after Swartz with so much zeal because of his activism. Swartz’ infamous “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto” is said to have a big part of why Swartz was on their radar and why they wanted to bring felony charges against him.
The fact that the “Manifesto” played a part in Swartz’ arrest, is a theory that has long been spoken of by Swartz’ many friends and supporters. According to TechDirt however, the “Manifesto” is not as “extreme as some make it out to be” with a large portion of it focused on material that is already in the public domain, but simply hidden and seeking to make that generally available again. The part that is probably the most controversial, cites TechDirt, is the following paragraph:
“We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.”
Even in this “controversial” paragraph, Swartz initially begins talking about material that is “out of copyright” and even in the bit about scientific journals it is not necessarily about copyright infringement because these days, many professors put copies of their work online freely in any case. So in reality, it’s hard to see why the DOJ was so disturbed by Swartz’ Manifesto and felt the need to hunt him down for it. But the DOJ told congressional staffers that Swartz “Manifesto” showed his “malicious intent in downloading documents on a massive scale.”
While some would agree with the DOJ’s interpretation of events, it does seem like they were trying to punish Swartz for a “thoughtcrime” since he didn’t make any moves to make JSTOR data available. While it is highly possible that he may have desired to leak the whole thing, it is also possible that he only intended to put the public domain works out there. However many would agree that perhaps there should have been a little more evidence before prosecutors went after Swartz with the full force of the law. Summarizing, TechDirt states;
“More importantly, it suggests that Swartz was arrested and prosecuted for expressing his opinion on how to solve a particular problem. You may or may not agree with it, but I thought the US was supposed to be a place where we were free to express ideas. There’s even some famous part of our Constitution about that…”