Aaron Swartz poses in a Borderland Books in San Francisco on February 4, 2008. Internet activist and programmer Swartz, who helped create an early version of RSS and later played a key role in stopping a controversial online piracy bill in Congress, has died at age 26, an apparent suicide, New York authorities said January 13, 2013. (Photo : Reuters)
The lawyer in charge of prosecuting Internet freedom activist Aaron Swartz defended her office's actions as "appropriate" less than a week after the 26-year-old co-creator of Reddit and RSS committed suicide.
U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, the top federal prosecutor in Massachusetts, commented on the case for the first time since the free speech advocate killed himself Friday, Jan. 11. She continued to say it was appropriate for prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Massachusetts to take on the case. She claimed her office was prepared to offer Swartz a deal that would have landed him behind bars in a low-security prison for six months, and that prosecutors never sought to give him the maximum punishment.
"At no time did this office ever seek -- or ever tell Mr. Swartz's attorneys that it intended to seek -- maximum penalties under the law," Ortiz said.
Swartz's lawyer and family respectfully disagree with that assessment. Speaking to the Huffington Post, Swartz's attorney, Elliot Peters, said prosecutors had told the defense they would argue for at least seven to eight years if Swartz rejected the six-month offer and was convicted at trial.
In the wake of Swartz's untimely passing his family has struck out at the government and MIT viciously, pointing to their actions as the catalyst behind his death. At Swartz's funeral, Robert Swartz said his son was "hounded by the government, and MIT refused him," the Chicago Sun-Times reported.
"He was killed by the government, and MIT betrayed all of its basic principles," he said.
Tim Berners-Lee, the man who developed the World Wide Web, speaking after the funeral, said the charges brought against Swartz were patently ridiculous, the Sun-Times reported.
"We felt the indictment was nonsense and that he would be acquitted," Berners-Lee told the newspaper.
Swartz was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment Friday. Swartz faced 30 or more years in prison for hacking charges. While working as a fellow at Harvard's Safra Center, Swartz downloaded 4.8 million academic papers from JSTOR, an academic database. MIT and JSTOR have an arrangement allowing free access to the database on MIT's network, but Swartz's pace of downloading reportedly killed JSTOR's servers leading to MIT being blocked from accessing the database for several days, according to the indictment against him. JSTOR alleged Swartz hid a laptop in a computer utility closet at MIT and downloaded the articles before being caught by campus and local police in 2011.
Swartz and JSTOR settled their dispute over the incident, but MIT brought in the authorities to investigate further, which led to his prosecution. Ever since, MIT's cooperation with police has been controversial at the school.
"Aaron's death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney's office and at MIT contributed to his death," said the Swartz family in a statement.
Ortiz's full statement:
As a parent and a sister, I can only imagine the pain felt by the family and friends of Aaron Swartz, and I want to extend my heartfelt sympathy to everyone who knew and loved this young man. I know that there is little I can say to abate the anger felt by those who believe that this office's prosecution of Mr. Swartz was unwarranted and somehow led to the tragic result of him taking his own life.
I must, however, make clear that this office's conduct was appropriate in bringing and handling this case. The career prosecutors handling this matter took on the difficult task of enforcing a law they had taken an oath to uphold, and did so reasonably. The prosecutors recognized that there was no evidence against Mr. Swartz indicating that he committed his acts for personal financial gain, and they recognized that his conduct -- while a violation of the law -- did not warrant the severe punishments authorized by Congress and called for by the Sentencing Guidelines in appropriate cases. That is why in the discussions with his counsel about a resolution of the case this office sought an appropriate sentence that matched the alleged conduct -- a sentence that we would recommend to the judge of six months in a low security setting. While at the same time, his defense counsel would have been free to recommend a sentence of probation. Ultimately, any sentence imposed would have been up to the judge. At no time did this office ever seek -- or ever tell Mr. Swartz's attorneys that it intended to seek -- maximum penalties under the law.
As federal prosecutors, our mission includes protecting the use of computers and the Internet by enforcing the law as fairly and responsibly as possible. We strive to do our best to fulfill this mission every day.