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DOJ Admits Aaron Swartz Prosecution was Political

Photo of Aaron Swartz

The DOJ has told Congressional investigators that Aaron’s prosecution was motivated by his political views on copyright.

I was going to start that last paragraph with “In a stunning turn of events,” but I realized that would be inaccurate — because it’s really not that surprising. Many people speculated throughout the whole ordeal that this was a political prosecution, motivated by anything/everything from Aaron’s effective campaigning against SOPA to his run-ins with the FBI over the PACER database. But Aaron actually didn’t believe it was — he thought it was overreach by some local prosecutors who didn’t really understand the internet and just saw him as a high-profile scalp they could claim, facilitated by a criminal justice system and computer crime laws specifically designed to give prosecutors, however incompetent or malicious, all the wrong incentives and all the power they could ever want.

But this HuffPo article, and what I’m hearing from sources on the Hill, suggest that that’s not true. That Ortiz and Heymann knew exactly what they were doing: Shutting up, and hopefully locking up, an extremely effective activist whose political views, including those on copyright, threatened the Powers That Be:

A Justice Department representative told congressional staffers during a recent briefing on the computer fraud prosecution of Internet activist Aaron Swartz that Swartz’s “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto” played a role in the prosecution, sources told The Huffington Post.

Keep in mind that Aaron did not in fact distribute the articles he downloaded from JSTOR. Keep in mind that he had the legal right to download each and every one of those articles individually. Keep in mind that the Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto that the DOJ cites was written by a group, not by Aaron individually, several years before Aaron’s actions — and take it from me that several years could be an eternity in the evolution of Aaron’s political views. Keep in mind that many independent commentators made an extremely plausible case that Aaron was interested in doing statistical research on the archive of articles, not distributing them.* And keep in mind that the government’s ONLY evidence that Aaron wanted to distribute the articles was this co-authored manifesto.

Does that seem like sufficient cause to destroy someone’s life? Let alone the life of one of the most promising technologists and entrepreneurs in the country?

Yes, it does: If the system’s main purpose is to maintain the status quo at the expense of anyone who tries to disrupt it.

This is making me angrier than almost anything I’ve heard since Aaron died. I finally figured out why: Because I worked my ass off to elect the Obama administration in 2008. I helped these people get in power. And then they drove the man I loved to suicide because they didn’t like something he said once.

And not only that: They are standing by their actions!

The DOJ refuses to admit the possibility that this might have been a mistake:

Reich told congressional staffers that the Justice Department believed federal prosecutors acted in a reasonable manner, according to the sources.

And to make matters even worse, everything I’m hearing from the Hill confirms that the DOJ is actively opposing against any changes to the CFAA, the law Aaron was prosecuted under. (The same law that says that anyone using a fake middle name on Facebook is committing a federal felony.)

If you know someone in the Obama administration, especially in the DOJ, ask them: How do you live with yourself right now?

And if you don’t, ask yourself: Do you feel safer?

UPDATE: I want to clarify something: Even if Aaron’s intention was in fact to distribute the journal articles (to poor people! for zero profit!), that in no way condones his treatment.

But the terrifying fact I’m trying to highlight in this particular blog post is this: According to the DOJ’s testimony, if you express political views that the government doesn’t like, at any point in your life, that political speech act can and will be used to justify making “an example” out of you once the government thinks it can pin you with a crime.

Talk about a chilling effect on freedom of speech.

*As I’ve said in other venues, I don’t know what Aaron planned to do with the articles, and neither does anyone else (other than maybe his lawyers). His lawyers instructed him very strictly that he should never talk about motive with anyone before the trial, as it could play a key role in the defense and they didn’t want the prosecution to get any hint of what line of argument might be used. And he was worried that I could be subpeona’d, since we weren’t married and hence I didn’t have marital privilege. Let me tell you, really not fun to go through a few years of a serious relationship and make life-changing decisions together like whether you should take a plea bargain, while having to worry that something you tell the other person could be used against you in a court of law.

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