Update: An Open Letter to Aaron Swartz's Prosecutor: 'His Supporters Find You Guilty.'
'This sort of unrestrained prosecutorial abuse is, unfortunately, far from uncommon. It usually destroys people without attention or notice'
Here we have yet another example of a U.S. attorney, Carmen Ortiz, playing with the power of this office with the all the thought of a loose cannon.
Now, Aaron Swartz is dead.
One crime in which both major American political parties do share equal blame is the indiscriminate use of the prosecutor's office (local and national) in creating what Glenn C. Loury terms the current American prison system which has become "a leviathan unmatched in human history."
Some years ago, back in the Bush-Cheney years, a UW-Madison professor told me most US attorneys and district attorneys ought to be sentenced to reading the great American jurist, Robert H. Jackson, and his work on prosecutorial discretion.
Here is the petition to President Obama to remove United States District Attorney Carmen Ortiz from office for overreach in the case of Aaron Swartz.
Ortiz, United States Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, threw the book at Swartz for downloading academic articles from a for-profit outfit called JSTOR ["an online publishing company that digitizes and distributes scholarly articles written by academics and then sells them," (Greenwald)]. That's it.
Swartz was an authorized user of JSTOR because he was a Harvard fellow.
JSTOR asked the US atty's office not to prosecute.
So, in rides U.S. attorney Carmen Ortiz anyway with a ridiculous indictment against a former prodigy intent on helping the world.
"For Aaron Swartz, the act of sharing was a 'moral imperative.' In his Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, released to the Web in July 2008, he specifically targeted the 'world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage,' which he said 'is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations.' Swartz called for those with access to such knowledge to make it available to others,' writes Andrew Leonard in Salon.
Glenn Greenwald has more details on the repulsive affair.
But in July 2011, Swartz was arrested for allegedly targeting JSTOR, the online publishing company that digitizes and distributes scholarly articles written by academics and then sells them, often at a high price, to subscribers. As Maria Bustillos detailed, none of the money goes to the actual writers (usually professors) who wrote the scholarly articles - they are usually not paid for writing them - but instead goes to the publishers.
This system offended Swartz (and many other free-data activists) for two reasons: it charged large fees for access to these articles but did not compensate the authors, and worse, it ensured that huge numbers of people are denied access to the scholarship produced by America's colleges and universities. The indictment filed against Swartz alleged that he used his access as a Harvard fellow to the JSTOR system to download millions of articles with the intent to distribute them online for free; when he was detected and his access was cut off, the indictment claims he then trespassed into an MIT computer-wiring closet in order to physically download the data directly onto his laptop.
Swartz never distributed any of these downloaded articles. He never intended to profit even a single penny from anything he did, and never did profit in any way. He had every right to download the articles as an authorized JSTOR user; at worst, he intended to violate the company's "terms of service" by making the articles available to the public. Once arrested, he returned all copies of everything he downloaded and vowed not to use them. JSTOR told federal prosecutors that it had no intent to see him prosecuted, though MIT remained ambiguous about its wishes.
But federal prosecutors ignored the wishes of the alleged "victims". Led by a federal prosecutor in Boston notorious for her overzealous prosecutions, the DOJ threw the book at him, charging Swartz with multiple felonies which carried a total sentence of several decades in prison and $1 million in fines. ...
I always found it genuinely inspiring to watch Swartz exude this courage and commitment at such a young age. His death had better prompt some serious examination of the DOJ's behavior - both in his case and its warped administration of justice generally. But his death will also hopefully strengthen the inspirational effects of thinking about and understanding the extraordinary acts he undertook in his short life. ... From the official statement of Swartz's family: "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 US Attorney's office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney's office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community's most cherished principles."
This sort of unrestrained prosecutorial abuse is, unfortunately, far from uncommon. It usually destroys people without attention or notice. Let's hope - and work to ensure that - the attention generated by Swartz's case prompts some movement toward accountability and reform.