Policy

Cornyn Seeks Answers From Justice on Swartz Prosecution

Letter to Attorney General Comes in Wake of Suicide of Internet Activist 1/22/2013 10:08 AM Eastern

 

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has asked Attorney General Eric Holder to look into what he says was overly aggressive prosecution of Internet and social activist Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide earlier this month almost a year to the day after he helped derail antipiracy legislation Cornyn ultimately opposed.

In the letter, Cornyn pointed out that the Justice Department had charged Swartz with felony counts for fraud and computer crimes that could mean decades in prison and a $1 million fine for allegedly hacking into MIT computers and downloading thousands of articles from a subscription service to make them available free.

The severity of that prosecution, he said, "raises important questions about prosecutorial conduct."

Cornyn wants a number of questions answered including whether prior investigations of Swartz played a role in the decision to charge him, why the Department filed a superseding indictment with even more charges, whether there was consideration to the proportionality of the potential penalties to the alleged conduct and whether the department was trying to "make an example" of him.

Finally, he said, the U.S. Attorney has involved in the prosecution has blamed the charges on the "severe punishments authorized by Congress" for online piracy. Cornyn wants to know if Justice gives its attorney's discretion within that statute to charge or not "consistent with their view of the gravity of the wrongdoing in a specific case."

The senator did not give Holder a deadline for responding, but said he wanted "prompt and thorough answers."

Swartz' death has already become something of a "Joe Hill"-like rallying point for activists looking to prevent any revival of the SOPA/PIPA legislation Swartz helped defeat in particular and money-driven, heavy-handed government in general. "[O]ur fight was his fight. And that while only he was Aaron Swartz, we are all now Aaron Swartz," said activist and academic Lawrence Lessig in an email from his rootstrikers.org.

Family and friends gathered Jan. 19 for a memorial ceremony at Cooper Union's Great Hall in New York.

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