Swartz' death fuels debate over computer crime

Published on NewsOK Modified: January 13, 2013 at 7:30 pm •  Published: January 13, 2013
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Elliot Peters, Swartz's attorney, told The Associated Press on Sunday that the case "was horribly overblown" because JSTOR itself believed that Swartz had "the right" to download from the site. Swartz was not formally affiliated with MIT, but was a fellow at nearby Harvard University. MIT maintains an open campus and open computer network, Peters said. He said that made Swartz's accessing the network legal.

JSTOR's attorney, Mary Jo White — formerly the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan — had called the lead Boston prosecutor in the case and asked him to drop it, said Peters, also a former federal prosecutor in Manhattan who is now based in California.

Reached at home, the prosecutor, Stephen Heymann, referred all questions to the spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Boston, Christina Dilorio-Sterling. She did not immediately respond to an email and phone message seeking comment.

Swartz's trial was set to begin in April, with an early hearing scheduled for later this month. He was charged with two sets of crimes: fraud, for downloading the articles illegally from JSTOR; and hacking into MIT's computer network without authorization, Peters said.

Peters said Swartz "obviously was not committing fraud" because "it was public research that should be freely available;" and that Swartz had the right to download from JSTOR, so he could not have gained unauthorized access.

As of Wednesday, the government took the position that any guilty plea by Swartz must include guilty pleas for all 13 charges and the possibility of jail time, Peters said. Otherwise the government would take the case to trial and seek a sentence of at least seven years.

JSTOR, one alleged victim, agreed with Peters that those terms were excessive, Peters said. JSTOR came over to Swartz's side after "he gave the stuff back to JSTOR, paid them to compensate for any inconveniences and apologized," Peters said.

MIT, the other party that Swartz allegedly wronged, was slower to react. The university eventually took a neutral stance on the prosecution, Peters said. But he said MIT got federal law enforcement authorities involved in the case early and began releasing information to them voluntarily, without being issued a subpoena that would have forced it to do so.

Swartz's father, Bob, is an intellectual property consultant to MIT's computer lab, Peters said. He said the elder Swartz was outraged by the university's handling of the matter, believing that it deviated from MIT's usual procedures.

In a statement emailed to the university community Sunday, MIT President L. Rafael Reif said he had appointed a professor to review the university's involvement in Swartz's case.

"Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT," Reif said in the letter.

Claypoole, the legal expert, said there will always be people like Swartz who believe in the free flow of information and are willing to "put their thumb in the eye of the powers that be."

"We've been fighting this battle for many years now and we're going to continue to fight it for a long time," he said.

For Swartz's family, the matter was clearer-cut, said Peters, his lawyer.

"Our consistent response was, this case should be resolved in a way that doesn't destroy Aaron's life and takes into account who he really is, and what he was doing."

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Wagner reported from Washington.