Privacy SOS

Congress moves to investigate and legislate in response to Swartz’ death

Photo credit: Jacob Appelbaum

It's been five days since Aaron Swartz took his own life, and already a typically slow to react congress has lurched into gear. House Oversight Committee chair Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA) has opened an investigation into the Department of Justice's handling of the Swartz prosecution. Huffington Post quotes Issa, describing why plea bargains so often work to deny people a fair trial by intimidation:

I'll make a risky statement here: Overprosecution is a tool often used to get people to plead guilty rather than risk sentencing. It is a tool of question. If someone is genuinely guilty of something and you bring them up on charges, that’s fine. But throw the book at them and find all kinds of charges and cobble them together so that they'll plea to a 'lesser included' is a technique that I think can sometimes be inappropriately used.

Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) has proposed legislation, "Aaron's Law," that would reform the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). As it stands, the law allows prosecutors to charge anyone who violates any Terms of Service with "hacking" or "fraud." Aaron's Law would remove that provision, stating explicitly that violating Terms of Service does not trigger a violation of the CFAA:

Section 1343 of title 18, United States Code, is amended by inserting after the first sentence the following: ‘‘A violation of an agreement or contractual obligation regarding Internet or computer use, such as an acceptable use policy or terms of service agreement, with an Internet service provider, Internet website, or employer is not in itself a violation of this section.’’

Meanwhile, Massachusetts US Attorney Carmen Ortiz' husband quit Twitter after making comments suggesting that the prosecution was fair, and that critics were overreacting. "Truly incredible that in their own son's obit they blame others for his death," he wrote. The US Attorney's office still has not commented substantively on Swartz' suicide, or on its prosecution. Swartz' attorney said that the lead prosecutor in the case, Stephen Heymann, went after him so aggressively because he was looking for "juicy" headlines and publicity.

The outpouring of grief over his death continues, and has broadened to include elected officials. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren told Huffington Post that Swartz "made remarkable contributions to our world." 

When I met Aaron Swartz in 2010, I discovered a young man who was passionate, sharp, a little shy, and, above all, warm and good natured. He seemed like the kind of person who couldn’t hurt a fly — he just had that kind of presence. Aaron made remarkable contributions to our world, and his advocacy for Internet freedom, social justice, and Wall Street reform demonstrated both the power of his ideas and the depth of his commitment. The world is a poorer place without Aaron.

You can read testimonies about Swartz and donate to a fund in his memory here.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.