Reddit Founder's Death Puts Spotlight on Feds
MANHATTAN (CN) - Nearly 1,000 people gathered to mourn and demand prosecutorial reform at a memorial for an Internet activist who committed suicide after he was indicted for computer fraud.
Aaron Swartz, 26, helped created the website Reddit.com and the code powering RSS feeds before using his computer skills to help make information freely available.
Prosecutors first set their sights on Swartz after he created a free analogue of the federal court database PACER, short for Public Access to Court Electronic Records. FBI investigators concluded that Swartz's database, Recap, broke no laws.
In an ironic turn, Stanford Law School fellow Aaron Greenspan recently wrote a blog post that accused PACER of violating its congressional mandate prohibiting it from collecting more fees than it needs to operate.
Swartz came under fire again in 2011 for downloading more than 4 million academic articles from Jstor, a scholarly database he accessed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's library.
Prosecutors believed Swartz planned to make the papers available on peer-to-peer file-sharing sites, but Jstor decided not to press charges and MIT remained silent.
At a Saturday memorial for Swartz, Yale professor emeritus Edward Tufte told the crowd that when he heard about Swartz's Jstor downloads, "My first question was, 'Why isn't MIT celebrating this?'"
Boston-based U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz indicted Swartz in July 2011 for several felony violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Two prosecutors under Ortiz's supervision, Stephen Heymann and Scott Garland, filed a superseding indictment in October 2012.
Facing more than 30 years in prison and $1 million in fines, Swartz hanged himself on Jan. 11.
His suicide led Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., to launch a congressional investigation of prosecutorial overreach, multiple online petitions to the White House and renewed interest in the causes the activist espoused.
Ortiz has insisted that her office never intended to seek the maximum penalties and offered Swartz a six-month plea deal, which would still have carried multiple felony convictions.
That response did not appease his family, friends and supporters, who filled nearly every seat of Cooper Union's 960-person capacity Great Hall for a memorial on Saturday.
Several speakers at the ceremony noted that political movements have claimed the hall as a gathering space for more than a century, dating back to anti-slavery sermons from Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
As mourners entered the hall, they were greeted by slideshows of Swartz delivering speeches in front of protests and conferences, poring over library collections and sitting behind Apple laptops.
Pete Seeger, whose renditions of "Solidarity Forever" and "If I Had a Hammer" played on the sound system, sent his grandson, Kitama Jackson, to deliver a sentence-long statement.
"These modern times are filled with such contradictions that experts are not sure what the future of the human race will be, but we can agree today that it was a tragedy for this young man to feel so threatened that he hanged himself," the statement read.
Swartz's girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kaufman, the final speaker of the night, offered an intimate account of his last days.
"The case defined our life together," she said.
She tearfully described how Swartz called his prosecution "the bad thing" before confessing to her that he had been "arrested and charged with downloading too many academic journal articles."
"Is that all?" she remembered saying.
He replied, "Yours is the most helpful reaction anybody had so far," she said. "Please don't change it."
She added that they planned to get married after his trial.
Rather than open his friends and loved ones to subpoenas, Swartz kept his "stress and anger and fear" to himself during court proceedings, Stinebrickner-Kaufman said.
"I tried to give him a hug and he pushed me away," she said. "He said, 'Not in front of Steve Heymann.'"
Casting Swartz as a "victim of a highly dysfunctional criminal justice system," Stinebrickner-Kaufman accused Heymann of being "hell-bent on destroying Aaron's life."
She tempered her bitter recrimination toward the prosecutors with a mournful refrain about Swartz's decision to end his life.
Throughout her speech, she listed aspects of the ceremony that Swartz would have appreciated or criticized. Then she added: "Memorial services are for the living, and last Friday, he forfeited his right to decide that."
Roy Singham, the stocky co-founder of the software company ThoughtWorks, shared a friend's view blaming Swartz's death on "murder by bullying and intimidation and torment."
"I know when people like [Swartz] are taken from us and we do not raise our voices, we are complicit," he intoned.
Singham's fiery speech urged widespread legal reforms, such as reductions in over-incarceration and prosecutorial power and the passage of "Aaron's Law."
Introduced by Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., the bill aims to decriminalize breaches of a websites' terms of service agreements, which became felony offenses under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act in 1986.
If passed years ago, Aaron's Law would have eliminated the serious charges Swartz faced, along with several currently pending against alleged WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning.
Singham also condemned what he called the "abusive system of plea bargaining in America."
These words echoed a New York Times investigation that found prosecutors overcharge defendants to coerce them into plea deals, or face what the paper called a "trial penalty."
Singham ended his speech with a quotation that he said Frederick Douglass delivered on that stage: "Power cedes nothing without a demand."
Another speaker, David Segal, runs an activist group DemandProgress.org, which takes its name from that immortal line.
Through this group, Swartz helped spearhead the campaign against the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, a bill slammed, and ultimately shelved, for allowing for broad censorship of the Internet.
While working for DemandProgress, Swartz filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking his own FBI file.
Segal said responsive records showed FBI agents resembling "Keystone Cops," as they scrambled to uncover Swartz's Boston address, which was available on the Internet.
"We can laugh about that in hindsight, but he was terrified at the time," Segal said.