WASHINGTON -- Hundreds of mourners gathered on Capitol Hill Monday to celebrate the life of Internet activist Aaron Swartz and to advocate changes to federal anti-hacking law.
Although the event functioned as a critique on the federal criminal justice system, it also served as a memorial service attended by high-profile lawmakers, academics and activists angered by Swartz's prosecution on federal hacking charges. Such an event is extraordinarily rare in the Capitol complex, especially one honoring a private citizen whose suicide has made him a symbol of federal prosecutorial power.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) spoke at the event, as did Reps. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.). Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) also attended.
Swartz took his own life last month after fighting federal hacking charges for two years. In the fall of 2010, he downloaded millions of academic journal articles from the online database JSTOR from a library at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Swartz had legal access to the articles, but his mass download violated the database terms of service agreement. Prosecutors refused to accept any plea deal that did not include jail time and a felony conviction, even though JSTOR had opposed criminal prosecution.
"He was always asking forgiveness rather than asking permission," said Taren Stinebrikner-Kaufmann, Swartz's partner. "And JSTOR forgave him, but MIT and the U.S. government would not."
Grayson called Swartz's prosecution and death the "human sacrifice" of a luminary who sought to reform the political status quo -- a loss he said belongs in the tradition of the poisoning of Socrates.
Swartz's intellect was celebrated in both political and technology circles. At age 14, he helped develop the code for RSS feeds, helped format the Creative Commons license at 15, and became one of the formative minds behind Reddit at 19. In politics, he co-founded Demand Progress and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and interned with Grayson to work on the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. He was 26 when he died.
"The striking fact about this case is that the more they learned, the more obstinate they became," Harvard University law professor Lawrence Lessig told the crowd, referring to U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz and Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Heyman, who handled Swartz's case.
"It's very, very difficult not to be angry about the circumstances of his death," said economist Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic Policy and Research. "This is a Justice Department that couldn't find anyone to prosecute for the tens of billions in fraudulent mortgages that were issued, but somehow had time and resources" to pursue Swartz.
Swartz had also previously downloaded thousands of public domain court documents from the subscription database PACER. The downloads drew the attention of the FBI, but no charges were filed because the documents were, in fact, public. Swartz later filed a Freedom of Information Act request to retrieve his own FBI file, and published the documentation on his blog.
Baker and Swartz's father, Robert Swartz, contrasted the activist's efforts with those of other tech pioneers who had directed their ingenuity toward corporate success and personal financial gain rather than public advocacy work. Both cited Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg by name. The disparity was emphasized by images of Swartz lecturing while wearing a hooded sweatshirt -- informal attire that Zuckerberg continues to wear after steering his company through a $104 billion initial public stock offering. "That's not what Aaron was about," Baker said.
Ortiz and Heymann relied on the 1984 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act to indict Swartz on 13 felony counts carrying a maximum penalty of 35 years in prison, plus fines. Ortiz has defended the charges as "appropriate," noting that prosecutors did not seek the maximum sentence in plea deals. Internet experts have been pushing to reform the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for years, arguing that it allows prosecutors to seek penalties similar to those of violent assaults for offenses some activities say should not be considered criminal at all.
A White House petition to fire Ortiz has eclipsed 50,000 signatures -- double the threshold at which the Obama administration has vowed to respond.
Advocates are now pushing to enact "Aaron's Law," which would shorten sentences for minor hacking violations, decriminalize terms of service contract violations and ban the prosecution of those who have authorized access to data, but deploy unconventional methods for obtaining it.
The reforms are strongly embraced by both conservative and liberal Internet freedom advocates, but face significant political opposition. Federal courts have issued conflicting rulings on the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. As recently as 2012, the Department of Justice had urged Congress to clarify that terms of service violations are a felony.
Swartz' memorial service was dominated by progressives, but drew a handful of conservatives to pay their respects. Among them was Issa and Berin Szoka, president of the TechFreedom activist group. Szoka voiced support for amending the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, but cautioned that he and other conservatives did not "condone" Aaron's effort to download JSTOR's academic journal articles. He argued that Swartz was innocent of any crime because he failed to republish the articles. Nevertheless, Szoka said, prosecutors should not have the legal authority to treat such activities as major offenses.
Szoka encouraged attendees not to portray Swartz as a "martyr for openness," but as a "victim" of an overzealous criminal justice system -- a call that drew jeers from the crowd that had to be quieted by Stinebrikner-Kaufmann. In his own remarks, Issa, leading a congressional investigation with Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) into the prosecution of Swartz, applauded Swartz's open Internet advocacy.
"Stick it to the man," Issa said. "[Aaron] and I probably would have found ourselves at odds with lots of decisions, but never with the question of whether information was in fact a human right … Ultimately knowledge belongs to all the people of the world -- unless there's a really valid reason to restrict it."Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Sir Tim Berners Lee, Founder Of The World Wide Web
He <a href="https://twitter.com/timberners_lee/status/290140454211698689">tweeted</a>: “Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.”
Quinn Norton, Freelance Journalist And Swartz's Close Friend
"We used to have a fight about how much the internet would grieve if he died. I was right, but the last word you get in as the still living is a hollow thing, trailing off, as it does, into oblivion." Read more <a href="http://www.quinnnorton.com/said/?p=644">here</a>.
Danah Boyd, Social Media Researcher And Swartz's Friend
"What I feel right now is anger. I'm angry at Aaron, angry at the state, angry at MIT, angry at anti-hactivist sentiment & angry at myself." Read Boyd's full statement on Swartz's death <a href="http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2013/01/13/aaron-swartz.html">here</a>.
Cory Doctorow, Science Fiction Author And Swartz's Friend
"Whatever problems Aaron was facing, killing himself didn't solve them. Whatever problems Aaron was facing, they will go unsolved forever. If he was lonely, he will never again be embraced by his friends. If he was despairing of the fight, he will never again rally his comrades with brilliant strategies and leadership. If he was sorrowing, he will never again be lifted from it." Read more <a href="http://boingboing.net/2013/01/12/rip-aaron-swartz.html">here</a>.
Swartz Family Statement
“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.” Read more <a href="http://rememberaaronsw.tumblr.com/post/40372208044/official-statement-from-the-family-and-partner-of-aaron">here</a>.
Lawrence Lessig, Director Of The Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics At Harvard University
"The question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a 'felon.' For in the 18 months of negotiations, that was what he was not willing to accept, and so that was the reason he was facing a million-dollar trial in April -- his wealth bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge. And so as wrong and misguided and fucking sad as this is, I get how the prospect of this fight, defenseless, made it make sense to this brilliant but troubled boy to end it." Read more <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lawrence-lessig/aaron-swartz-suicide_b_2467079.html">here</a>.
JSTOR, Academic Archive
"We are deeply saddened to hear the news about Aaron Swartz. We extend our heartfelt condolences to Aaron’s family, friends, and everyone who loved, knew, and admired him. He was a truly gifted person who made important contributions to the development of the internet and the web from which we all benefit." Read more <a href="http://about.jstor.org/statement-swartz">here</a>.
L. Rafael Reif, MIT President
"I have asked professor Hal Abelson to lead a thorough analysis of MIT's involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in Fall 2010 up to the present. I have asked that this analysis describe the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took. I will share the report with the MIT community when I receive it." Read more <a href="http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2013/letter-on-death-of-aaron-swartz.html">here</a>.
Anonymous, Hacktivist Collective
On Sunday night, one day after Swartz's death, Anonymous knocked out Internet access at MIT, <a href="http://tech.mit.edu/V132/N61/anonymous.html" target="_hplink">according to The Tech</a>, a campus newspaper. Two MIT-affiliated websites were rewritten with the following message from the hacktivist group: "Whether or not the government contributed to his suicide, the government's prosecution of Swartz was a grotesque miscarriage of justice, a distorted and perverse shadow of the justice that Aaron died fighting for - freeing the publicly-funded scientific literature from a publishing system that makes it inaccessible to most of those who paid for it - enabling the collective betterment of the world through the facilitation of sharing - an ideal that we should all support." Read the full text of the hack <a href="http://gizmodo.com/5975646/anonymous-hacks-mit-in-aaron-swartzs-name">here</a>.
Danny O'Brien, Journalist And Swartz's Friend
"Ada [O'Brien's daughter] cried, then we hugged, then Ada suggested we have a goodbye party, with ice-cream and sprinkles and a movie, and make a board where we could pin all our memories. We laughed at how funny he was. Aaron taught her so well." Read more <a href="http://www.oblomovka.com/wp/2013/01/12/he-was-funny/">here</a>. <strong>Correction:</strong> This slide originally reported that Ada was Aaron Swartz's daughter, not Danny O'Brien's. The Huffington Post regrets this error.