WASHINGTON -- One of the staunchest Republicans in Congress, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), attended a Capitol Hill memorial on Monday for progressive activist Aaron Swartz, praising the fallen Internet icon's political courage and saying he has common ground with much of Swartz's legacy.
"He 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," Issa said at the memorial.
Swartz, who was one of the earliest minds behind Reddit, took his own life in January after fighting federal hacking charges for two years. He had long been an advocate for both an open Internet and the democratization of knowledge. Prosecutors pursued him for downloading millions of academic journal articles from the online database JSTOR, but Swartz had devoted much of his activist energy to liberating information. At age 14, he helped develop the Creative Commons license, an alternative to copyright that allows works to be shared freely, so long as they are not used for profit. The license is used heavily by Flickr and many other websites. Later, Swartz downloaded public court documents from the PACER system in an effort to make them available outside of the expensive service. The move drew the attention of the FBI, which ultimately decided not to press charges as the documents, were, in fact, public.
Issa told a crowd of hundreds Monday night that Swartz's life's work resonates with him on a personal level.
"Ultimately, knowledge belongs to all the people of the world," said Issa.
Issa, who has a long history of partisan aggression towards Democrats on Capitol Hill, was one of only a handful of Republicans to attend the memorial for Swartz. Issa was also the first congressional Republican to oppose the Stop Online Piracy Act, a bill that Internet freedom activists ultimately stymied -- with Swartz playing a leading role in the fight. Issa has continued to embrace Internet freedom causes, though he has said he opposes one of its core policies, net neutrality.
On Monday night, Issa argued that the open access movement has strong ties to bedrock conservative principles -- a point that many Republicans have been reluctant to embrace.
"'Stick it to the man,' something from my generation, resonates with everyone here tonight," Issa said. "Ultimately, trusting a government is inconsistent with our founding words, 'We the people.' Aaron understood that … Our copyright laws were created for the purpose of promoting useful works, not hiding them. Our government and every asset of the government belongs to the American people. Not one piece of federal land is off your ability to walk through at your pleasure, unless there's a valid reason to prohibit that. That principle, I think Aaron and I would always agree on. The principle that we own our government, we own all the rights and privileges that God gave us."
In the fall of 2010, Swartz downloaded millions of academic journal articles from the online database JSTOR. He had legal access to the documents through his JSTOR account, but violated the database's Terms of Service agreement by downloading them en masse. JSTOR had backed out of Swartz's prosecution, and to some the case has become a symbol of prosecutorial abuse.
Issa, who is leading a congressional investigation with Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) into the prosecution of Swartz, chided federal prosecutors for so fervently pursuing Swartz over "harmless acts."
"The best and the brightest in our prosecution -- our U.S. attorneys -- should care about disposing of small cases quickly and big cases properly. And this wasn't a big case, and we know that," said Issa on Monday. His words were met with applause from the audience.
"The issues that Aaron has left behind and the causes that he believed in are ones that I believe will live on in this Congress," Issa said.