About 150 people gathered at Dewey Square this afternoon to remember Internet activist Aaron Swartz, some holding signs saying “Aaron’s Law” and listening to folk songs like “We Shall Overcome.”
Supporters of Swartz claim that overly aggressive prosecution of him contributed to the 26-year-old’s decision to take his own life in January. He was arrested in 2011 after allegedly hacking into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology network and illegally downloading nearly 5 million documents from JSTOR, among the largest online databases of scholarly publications.
After his death, many criticized US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz’s handling of the case and said outdated laws on computer fraud and abuse need to change.
A congressional inquiry has been opened.
Swartz’s girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, addressed the crowd and called for more humane prosecution of federal computer laws so that people such as Swartz, or anyone else, should not face prison time for acts such as accessing a database of academic articles.
“We have to rein in prosecutorial power,” she said, calling for an overhaul of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act used to arrest Swartz in 2011 for allegedly hacking into a scholarly archive and downloading millions of articles. “We need fundamental criminal justice reform. We just have to have it in this country and we’re not going to go away until we have it.”
Swartz’s suicide triggered a national debate over whether prosecutors were overzealous in pursuing charges against the computer wunderkind, who helped create the RSS information-distribution software and who merged his start-up with the popular website Reddit.com.
Others feared the failure to treat security breaches seriously could embolden others to carry out more damaging thefts in the future.
“Today is the day that Aaron should’ve been free,” said Charlie Furman, 24, campaign manager for Demand Progress, a nonprofit Aaron founded. “People are coming out because obviously that’s not something we had the chance to see. Instead the best thing we can do is honor Aaron and demand justice by fixing the laws that he was charged under so this can never happen again.”