The Aaron Swartz saga

Aaron Swartz’ suicide  is gaining momentum, focusing even more  negative attention on the JSTOR  academic database  and the office of US attorney US attorney Carmen Ortiz, who’d charged Swartz, 26, with 13 felony counts for downloading  scores of academic journal articles from JSTOR .

A few days ago, Aaron hanged himself, weighed down, many believe, by depression brought on by Ortiz’s bloody-minded determination to  press on with the charges even though JSTOR itself had decided against continuing.

Now, “While we’ve seen some politicians in Congress speak out about the prosecution against Aaron Swartz, for the most part, it had been the ‘usual crew’ of folks who had formed the core of the anti-SOPA alliance — Reps. Lofgren, Issa and Polis,”  writes Mike Masnick in Techdirt, going on,

“That’s great, but it also made it unfortunately easy for some to dismiss their complaints.

“However, it appears that this may be getting bigger. Senator John Cornyn has jumped in and sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder asking for an explanation of the prosecution against Aaron Swartz. He specifically asks a number of interesting questions:

First, on what basis did the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts conclude that her office’s conduct was “appropriate?” Did that office, or any office within the Department, conduct a review? If so, please identify that review and supply its contents.

Second, was the prosecution of Mr. Swartz in any way retaliation for his exercise of his rights as a citizen under the Freedom of Information Act? If so, I recommend that you refer the matter immediately to the Inspector General.

Third, what role, if any, did the Department’s prior investigations of Mr. Swartz play in the decision of with which crimes to charge him? Please explain the basis for your answer.

Fourth, why did the U.S. Attorney’s office file the superseding indictment?

Fifth, when the U.S. Attorney’s office drafted the indictment and the superseding indictment, what consideration was given to whether the counts charged and the associated penalties were proportional to Mr. Swartz’s alleged conduct and its impact upon victims?

Sixth, was it the intention of the U.S. Attorney and/or her subordinates to “make an example” of Mr. Swartz? Please explain.

Finally, the U.S. Attorney has blamed the “severe punishments authorized by Congress” for the apparent harshness of the charges Mr. Swartz faced. Does the Department of Justice give U.S. Attorneys discretion to charge defendants (or not charge them) with crimes consistent with their view of the gravity of the wrongdoing in a specific case?

“Interesting questions all around. As Emptywheel notes, that second question is a bit of a new one. People have talked about the earlier investigations of Aaron, as well as his activism, but little attention has been paid to his widespread use of FOIA. However, Aaron did file a lot of FOIA requests, using the same platform, MuckRock, that we’ve used here at Techdirt.

“In fact, MuckRock put up a post about Aaron’s use of that service including the fact that Aaron and MuckRock were currently in the middle of appealing the results of a FOIA request concerning domain seizures — a story that potentially could implicate the DOJ.”

I am sure that we’ll get the usual bland denials and non-answers from Holder, but it is significant to see Senators like Cornyn suddenly take an interest in this particular issue.

I lifted the  video under this  from Mike Masnick’s A Week Later: Reflecting On Aaron Swartz, which kicks off >>>

For those of us who crossed paths, even if briefly, with Aaron Swartz during his short lifetime, this week was certainly a difficult one. He accomplished so much, but the really distressing point is how much more all of us expected him to accomplish in the future, and how we will all be worse off without that happening. I have a big list of people who I’ve asked to do the weekly Techdirt favorites — along with many people who I want to ask, and each week I pick people off of that list.

Aaron’s been on that list for a long, long time, and I never got around to asking him. And now I never will.

For the moment, will Carmen Ortiz answer Cornyn’s questions in the kind of detail they deserve? 

Indeed, will she respond at all?

Stay tuned …

And lest we forget, Mike’s reflections  included this >>>

While the US Attorneys Office initially stayed silent, Carmen Ortiz’s husband, IBM exec Tom Dolan, first started sniping on Twitter, criticizing the Swartz’s family just a few days after his suicide. Talk about insulting.

The next day, Ortiz finally came out with a statement. Unlike MIT’s statement — which admitted that the institution needed to reflect carefully on what happen and set up an investigation to explore whether it could have done better, Ortiz’s statement not only took a very defensive stance, but came across as both tone deaf and completely disconnected from reality. She claimed that she and her colleagues realized that Aaron’s “crime” wasn’t that big of a deal, which is why they offered him a plea bargain — whereby he needed to plead guilty to 13 felonies, and they’d only recommend 6 months in jail (the judge could choose a different amount of time) — but ignored how she and her colleagues used the possibility of 35 years or more to threaten and badger Aaron as they tried to coax the plea bargain out of him.

Larry Lessig gets it right here in expressing his sheer anger at Ortiz’s statement. He berates himself for even thinking that Ortiz might at least be somewhat self-reflective and admit that perhaps the issues should be explored.

Jon Newton — myblogdammit

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