Several lawmakers have written to the Department of Justice demanding answers regarding the prosecution of Aaron Swartz.
After 26-year-old internet activist Swartz committed suicide in the face of a federal prosecution, criticism of the way in which his case has been severe. Lead prosecutor Carmen Ortiz has been accused of overreach, (which she has denied in a statement) and the petition on “We The People” calling for her to be removed from office reached the required signatures to guarantee an official White House response in just two days. Many legal experts have spoken out about the case against Aaron, stating that the U.S. legal system had failed him.
Now Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the Chairman and a ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform have compiled a letter demanding answers and sent it to Attorney General Eric Holder.
Issa and Cummings want the briefing regarding their questions to take place no later than Monday 4th February.
The questions that appear in the letter are as follows:
1. What factors influenced the decision to prosecute Mr. Swartz for the crimes alleged in the indictment, including the decisions regarding what crimes to charge and the filing of the superseding indictment?
2. Was Mr. Swartz’ opposition to [the Stop Online Piracy Act] or his association with any advocacy groups among the factors considered?
3. What specific plea offers were made to Mr. Swartz, and what factors influenced the decisions by prosecutors regarding plea offers made to Mr. Swartz?
4. How did the criminal charges, penalties sought, and plea offers in this case compare to those of other cases that have been prosecuted or considered for prosecution under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act?
5. Did the federal investigation of Mr. Swartz reveal evidence that he had committed other hacking violations?
6. What factors influence the Department’s decisions regarding sentencing proposals?
7. Why was a superseding indictment necessary?
Swartz was threatened with a maximum sentence of 35-years in jail and fines of over $1 million for sneaking into MIT and downloading academic articles from JSTOR as part of a protest for the sharing of knowledge. Swartz believed that academic journals should be free to access on the internet however his plan was discovered and the journals he downloaded were taken offline before JSTOR encountered any financial damage. JSTOR did not pursue charges against Swartz, yet the prosecutors working on his case sought to push for the maximum sentence.
There has been some debate as to whether Swartz would have only ended up serving a few months in prison, had he chosen a plea deal. However his lawyers have argued that this kind of option was not offered to them and the fact that the prosecution added a further 9 felony charges to the original 4 in September seems to suggest that they were going after Aaron with the full force of the law.
Some critics of the prosecution have argued that the Swartz case is a strong example of a lack of crime-to-punishment proportionality in the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The Harvard Business Review’s James Allworth highlights the lack of punishment handed out to HSBC after its admittance to money laundering for drug cartels and the measly 9-month sentence given to the executives of a medical company who chose to inject untested bone cement into the spines of patients resulting in deaths, as examples of this.
Lawmaker Zoe Lofgren has proposed an amendment to the CFAA, to be called “Aaron’s Law”, this amendment would see the violation of online terms and conditions reduced from a felony to a breach of contract.
The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s letter to the DOJ can be read in full below: