WASHINGTON — A congressional committee is broadening its investigation of the Boston-based prosecution of political activist Aaron Swartz, whose January suicide prompted questions about whether the Justice Department went too far in enforcing a 27-year-old law regulating computer use.
Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said in an interview that he plans to expand his inquiry into how the office of US Attorney Carmen Ortiz of Massachusetts handled the case.
“Are we using excess prosecution, excess claims in order to force guilty pleas?” the California Republican asked. “Or are we trying to genuinely offer punishment fitting the crime? In the case of Aaron Swartz, it’s very clear that they were trying to send a message to people other than Aaron Swartz with what they were willing to offer him and what he was charged with.”
Issa said his committee is seeking information from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Swartz hacked computers, and JSTOR, the scholar database whose files he downloaded.
Issa’s staff was recently briefed by the Justice Department on the rationale for the prosecution of Swartz, but Issa said the committee was left with many questions that he hopes will be answered in an expanded inquiry.
Whatever happens in the investigation, the case has simultaneously pushed Congress to review whether to update the law under which Swartz was prosecuted. That has prompted a debate with potentially far-reaching consequences, as lawmakers ponder whether to revise a law enacted in 1986 — when the Internet as it is known today barely existed — without creating an opening for illegal hacking.
Swartz was arrested in Boston in 2011 after allegedly using MIT’s network to illegally download 4.8 million documents from JSTOR, one of the Internet’s largest collections of scholarly articles. Though JSTOR didn’t press charges, Swartz faced 13 felony counts that carried up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines.
Ortiz offered Swartz a plea deal that would have cut his time behind bars to less than a year, an offer the activist turned down. Aides said Ortiz declined to comment Tuesday, but she wrote in a statement after the activist’s death that her office’s “conduct was appropriate in bringing and handling the case.”
Some Internet activists are pushing lawmakers to rewrite the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act under which Swartz was prosecuted. Aimed at narrowing the statute, draft legislation dubbed “Aaron’s Law” is set to be introduced on the House floor in the coming weeks.
Lawmakers, however, face a balancing act that will only intensify as commerce and communication continue to move online: how to keep the Internet free and open while combating the growing threat of cybercrime.
“Computers have come a long way since ,” Representative Joseph Kennedy III of Brookline said. “It might be time for an update.”
But the 32-year-old Kennedy — among the few members of Congress who grew up with computers — acknowledged the challenges facing lawmakers as the Web becomes more integrated into everyday life.
“The Internet . . . has fostered so much innovation, which is a great thing that we need to encourage,” Kennedy said. “The difficult part about innovation is that, by its nature, it is disruptive . . . There is a balance, again, to be struck on this.”
Issa, who is leading the inquiry on Swartz’s case with ranking member Elijah Cummings, said the committee is asking the question, “Should the tools of the kind of prosecution they had, the kind of years he was facing — should those tools exist for exactly what he did — in the future?”
Swartz’s motive in downloading millions of JSTOR files is unclear.
Two officials with knowledge of the House Oversight Committee briefing said the Justice Department pointed to Swartz’s past advocacy of free and unrestricted information online as evidence of his intent to distribute the documents. The officials confirmed a report in The Huffington Post that a Justice official referenced the “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto” that Swartz wrote in 2008, which called for “civil disobedience” toward copyright laws since “information is power.”
“There is no justice in following unjust laws,” Swartz wrote. “We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world.”
Representatives Stephen Lynch of South Boston and John Tierney of Salem, two Massachusetts Democrats on the House Oversight Committee, declined to comment on the briefing.Continued...