Late last week a Justice Department official told a congressional committee investigating the prosecution of late technologist Aaron Swartz that the young man’s political writings had been taken into account in building their criminal case. According to HuffPo’s Ryan Reilly “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.”
Swartz had co-authored the manifesto in 2008, which advocated for civil disobedience against copyright laws. The document, which Swartz did not even write alone and which made no mention of specific intentions to breach any copyright laws, was used by the DoJ to illustrate that Swartz had “malicious intent in downloading documents on a massive scale.” However, there was no specific evidence that Swartz intended to share the millions of JSTOR articles he downloaded — and certainly no suggestion that Swartz ever aimed to profit off the articles. Indeed, it bears constant repeating that the Justice Department pursued felony charges against the activist even when the purported victim, online academic publisher JSTOR, had declined to press any charges.
The government’s admission that Swartz’s (co-authored and years-old) political manifesto was used as evidence for criminal intent is troubling enough. Swartz’s ideals about open data were used against him — what clearer evidence of ideological persecution is needed? Yet, as Reilly reported, “the Justice Department believed federal prosecutors acted in a reasonable manner, according to the sources.”
Swartz’s loved ones and supported reacted with fury, having already fingered prosecutorial overreach as partly to blame for the brilliant technologist’s suicide. Swartz’s partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman Tuesday published a pointed reaction to the revelation that the DoJ had explicitly weighed Swartz’s politics. She wrote:
I was going to start… 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.
…. 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.
… 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.