The Justice Department official who oversaw the criminal case of Aaron Swartz before the Internet activist's suicide last week defended her office's handling of his case.
Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, was prosecuting Swartz on charges of illegally downloading a large number of academic papers. A vocal advocate for open access rights to documents on the Internet, Swartz had faced the possibility of as much as $4 million in fines and more than 50 years in prison if convicted. Critics of the prosecutors in the case accused the feds of unfairly trying to make an example out of the 26-year-old Swartz.
Saying that as a parent she sympathized with Swartz's friends and family, Ortiz challenged the notion that her office's conduct led to Swartz's suicide.
"The career prosecutors handling this matter took on the difficult task of enforcing a law they had taken an oath to uphold, and did so reasonably," Ortiz said in a statement (see below), adding that prosecutors recognized that Swartz's conduct did not warrant the stiffest of penalties allowed under sentencing guidelines. "That is why in the discussions with his counsel about a resolution of the case this office sought an appropriate sentence that matched the alleged conduct -- a sentence that we would recommend to the judge of six months in a low security setting."
In the statement that follows, Ortiz says her office never intended to seek the maximum sentence:
As a parent and a sister, I can only imagine the pain felt by the family and friends of Aaron Swartz, and I want to extend my heartfelt sympathy to everyone who knew and loved this young man. I know that there is little I can say to abate the anger felt by those who believe that this office's prosecution of Mr. Swartz was unwarranted and somehow led to the tragic result of him taking his own life.
I must, however, make clear that this office's conduct was appropriate in bringing and handling this case. The career prosecutors handling this matter took on the difficult task of enforcing a law they had taken an oath to uphold, and did so reasonably. The prosecutors recognized that there was no evidence against Mr. Swartz indicating that he committed his acts for personal financial gain, and they recognized that his conduct - while a violation of the law - did not warrant the severe punishments authorized by Congress and called for by the Sentencing Guidelines in appropriate cases. That is why in the discussions with his counsel about a resolution of the case this office sought an appropriate sentence that matched the alleged conduct - a sentence that we would recommend to the judge of six months in a low security setting. While at the same time, his defense counsel would have been free to recommend a sentence of probation. Ultimately, any sentence imposed would have been up to the judge. At no time did this office ever seek - or ever tell Mr. Swartz's attorneys that it intended to seek - maximum penalties under the law.
As federal prosecutors, our mission includes protecting the use of computers and the Internet by enforcing the law as fairly and responsibly as possible. We strive to do our best to fulfill this mission every day.
The computer fraud laws used to prosecute Swartz have been targeted for reform by a Democratic congresswoman from Silicon Valley. Rep. Zoe Lofgren said yesterday that she had authored a bill (PDF) called "Aaron's Law" that aims to change the 1984 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and the wire fraud statute to exclude terms of service violations.
"The government was able to bring such disproportionate charges against Aaron because of the broad scope of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and the wire fraud statute," Lofgren wrote.
Lofgren is not the first to complain that the wording of the 29-year-old anti-hacking law was overly broad. Last April, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco rejected the government's broad interpretation of the 1984 law, warning that millions of Americans could be subjected to prosecution for harmless Web surfing at work.