Aaron Swartz Prosecutors Weighed 'Guerilla' Manifesto, Justice Official Tells Congressional Committee
A Justice Department representative told congressional staffers during a recent briefing on the computer fraud prosecution of Internet activist Aaron Swartz that Swartz's "Guerilla Open Access Manifesto" played a role in the prosecution, sources told The Huffington Post.
Swartz's 2008 manifesto said sharing information was a "moral imperative" and advocated for "civil disobedience" against copyright laws pushed by corporations "blinded by greed" that led to the "privatization of knowledge."
"We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that's out of copyright and add it to the archive," Swartz wrote in the manifesto. "We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access."
The "Manifesto," Justice Department representatives told congressional staffers, demonstrated Swartz's malicious intent in downloading documents on a massive scale.
Swartz was 26 when he killed himself in January. He had been indicted by federal prosecutors in 2011 for downloading millions of academic journal articles from the nonprofit online database JSTOR using the Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer network. He faced a felony conviction and prison sentence for downloading the articles, though he maintained he had permission to access them.
The briefing for congressional staffers on the House Oversight Committee was led by Steven Reich, an associate deputy attorney general. Reich did not respond to a request for comment.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the leading Republican and Democrat on the committee, are jointly investigating prosecutors' handling of the Swartz case. Family, friends and supporters of Swartz have said they believe the aggressive prosecution played a role in his suicide. The U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, Carmen Ortiz, has defended her staff members assigned to the case.
Reich told congressional staffers that the Justice Department believed federal prosecutors acted in a reasonable manner, according to the sources. He also made clear that prosecutors were in part influenced by wanting to deter others from committing similar offenses.
When considering punishment, courts are supposed to impose an “adequate deterrence to criminal conduct" under federal statute. Swartz's "Manifesto," prosecutors said they believed, made clear that he intended to share the academic articles widely.
Reich told congressional staffers that prosecutors offered Swartz a plea bargain early in the case that would have given him a three-month prison sentence in exchange for a guilty plea to a felony, according to three sources with knowledge of the briefing who would not agree to be quoted by name. Reich told the staffers that the plea deal would allow Swartz's lawyers to argue to a judge that Swartz didn't deserve a prison sentence.
Some congressional staffers left the briefing with the impression that prosecutors believed they needed to convict Swartz of a felony that would put him in jail for a short sentence in order to justify bringing the charges in the first place, according to two aides with knowledge of the briefing.