In response to what has been described as prosecutorial bullying, inflated sentences, "grotesque miscarriage of justice" and subsequent tragedy of Aaron Swartz's suicide, the hacker collective Anonymous broke into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology website over the weekend and replaced the homepage with a tribute, “In Memoriam, Aaron Swartz.”
Swartz, an outspoken advocate of open information, had been recently embroiled in a legal battle over digital copyright for allegedly harvesting four million academic papers from MIT's JSTOR online database.
Salon's Natasha Lennard adds that, "although JSTOR told federal prosecutors it had no interest in pursuing charges against Swartz, the DoJ, led by a harsh and zealous Boston prosecutor, threw everything they could at the young activist."
'The government's prosecution of Swartz was a grotesque miscarriage of justice, a distorted and perverse shadow of the justice that Aaron died fighting for.' Calling for computer crime law reform, Anonymous's statement decried the lawsuit, writing:
The government's prosecution of Swartz was a grotesque miscarriage of justice, a distorted and perverse shadow of the justice that Aaron died fighting for—freeing the publicly-funded scientific literature from a publishing system that makes it inaccessible to most of those who paid for it—enabling the collective betterment of the world through the facilitation of sharing—an ideal that we should all support.
Additionally, a statement released by the web pioneer's family and partner on Sunday directed their grief over Swartz's tragic suicide towards the institutions —the U.S. government and MIT—that threatened the brilliant technologist and social justice activist with jail for, by some counts, up to 50 years:
Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.
In a blog post this weekend, Swartz's longtime friend and mentor Lawrence Lessig called the prosecution a "bully," writing:
From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. The “property” Aaron had “stolen,” we were told, was worth “millions of dollars” — with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime. But anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar. It was clear what this was not, yet our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed.
For remember, we live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White House — and where even those brought to “justice” never even have to admit any wrongdoing, let alone be labeled “felons.”
In that world, the question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a “felon.” For in the 18 months of negotiations, that was what he was not willing to accept, and so that was the reason he was facing a million dollar trial in April — his wealth bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge.
Swartz's trial was set to start this spring and his attempts to reach a plea-bargain with the government recently fell apart after Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Heymann told Swartz's lawyer, Elliot Peters, "Mr. Swartz would need to plead guilty to every count, and the government would insist on prison time."
The Washington Post reports, in an update to the statement (which has since been taken down), Anonymous said it "does not blame MIT for Swartz’s death," citing a letter from MIT President Rafael Reif that said the school would investigate the role MIT played in Swartz’s case.
In response to the tragic news, supporters have started a White House petition to remove U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, who supervised the prosecution of in Swartz’s case, saying that "a prosecutor who regularly uses the threat of unjust and overreaching charges... is a danger to the life and liberty of anyone who might cross her path."