Swartz Charged with Many Crimes to Force Guilty Plea
Aaron Swartz: Eric Holder calls Aaron Swartz case “a good use of prosecutorial discretion.”
Earlier this morning, the Senate Judiciary Committee grilled Attorney General Eric Holder on topics ranging from drones to marijuana policy. About an hour into the oversight hearing, Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, asked Holder about the DOJ’s prosecution of Aaron Swartz, the programmer and Internet activist who committed suicide in January. Among other things, Swartz had been charged under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for using MIT’s computer network to unauthorizedly download millions of academic journal articles from a subscription database called JSTOR. He was facing a maximum sentence of 50 years in prison.
The DOJ may have only intended for Swartz to go to jail for a couple months. It’s clear, though, they would’ve had no problem with sending him away for a few years, too. I think Sen. Cornyn put it nicely: “If you’re an individual American citizen, and you’re looking at criminal charges being brought by the United States government, with all of the vast resources available to the government, it strikes me as disproportionate, and one that is basically being used inappropriately, to try to bully someone into pleading guilty to something that strikes me as rather minor.”
Holder claimed that the Department of Justice had conducted “a good examination” of the Swartz prosecution, and came away from it satisfied that there had been no prosecutorial misconduct. And maybe there wasn’t, if you’re judging the prosecutors on whether they deviated from standard DOJ practice. But there is a flaw in the system if the DOJ’s best route to get the sentence it’s looking for is to threaten defendants with disproportionate prison terms. That might be an effective prosecutorial tactic, but that’s not justice.
So, a federal prosecutor stacks charges on what should be a single offense in order to get someone to plead guilty. Is that justice? Does it bear any resemblance to justice?
Swartz had a strong defense but by the stacking the charges the feds had placed him in a situation where if he lost he could serve fifty years.
It sounds to me that if you wanted to, as a federal prosecutor, you could force people to settle even if they were innocent – just stack the charges so that the risk of losing will put in jail for decades then offer a few months. You generate another trophy for that wall and don’t actually have to go to court and take your case to a jury.
That’s not justice, it’s just a use of overwhelming government resources to force the win.
Tell me, if I put you in a situation like Swartz where you could serve up to fifty years in prison and they offer you three to six months, and you have done nothing, would you take the deal?
Are you willing to rely on your innocence in court, and risk fifty years? You have to think about it, don’t you?
Let’s make it a little tougher. You can’t afford your own attorney and the government is willing to spend several million dollars and thousands of hours investigating you. Every corner of your life will be turned upside down. You’ll go bankrupt from fees. You probably won’t be able to hold a job because of the regular court appearances and your reputation just went through the shredder.
Do you still want to plead innocent or will you take the three months just to make it stop?
From around the web:
From the web site, Another Anthro Blog:
Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You’ll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier.
There are those struggling to change this. The Open Access Movement has fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it. But even under the best scenarios, their work will only apply to things published in the future. Everything up until now will have been lost.
That is too high a price to pay. Forcing academics to pay money to read the work of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries but only allowing the folks at Google to read them? Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It’s outrageous and unacceptable.
From the web site, Gateways: A Dramaturgical Blog:
Not only was Swartz a computer science genius, he was also heavily devoted to freedom of information—which is where he found himself getting into trouble. His friend, journalist and science fiction novelist Cory Doctorow, says he was a “full-time, uncompromising, reckless and delightful shit-disturber.” His first target was PACER.gov, a website that provides court documents to the public for a small fee (about 8 cents per page). In 2008, Swartz, funded by his own money, single-handedly moved the information on to a public website. He released over 18 million pages, an estimated total value of 1.5 million dollars. The FBI investigated the situation, but no charges were filed against him.
Shortly after, Swartz founded DemandProgress.org, a website devoted to internet activism. The website was integral in taking down the Stop Online Piracy and the Protect IP Acts of 2011, two bills which allowed the government more control over what could and could not be posted and shared on the internet (they deserve their own blog post—next week, perhaps).
And from the web site, Justrecently’s Weblog:
What got him into conflict with the judicial system, after some earlier and less significant jostles, was breaking into M.I.T. computer networks in 2010 and 2011, to access JSTOR and to download documents from there. It was apparently meant to be a demonstration, to underline his case that documents like JSTOR’s should be freely available. It had long been argued that such documents should be free because they are produced at public expense, writes the New York Times. The NYT has a detailed account of Swartz’ JSTOR activity. The indictment says that JSTOR’s servers were brought down by his action on several occasions, Wired wrote in September 2012.
It’s apparently a Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) which was applied by federal prosecutors. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in limiting reach of the CFAA, said that violations of employee contract agreements and websites’ terms of service – crucial in Swartz’ case, apparently, at least if up to the prosecutors – were better left to civil lawsuits, also according to Wired. But this ruling wasn’t binding for Massachusetts, and the prosecutors insisted that their charges against Swartz should go on. The maximum penalty – potentially – could have amounted to 35 years in prison, and a million USD penalty. The chief prosecutor in charge was Steve Heymann, who had previously brought hacker Albert Gonzales into jail with a 20-year term.