Carmen Ortiz, the US Attorney for Massachusetts who is working with the Police Service of Northern Ireland to appropriate IRA interviews archived at Boston College, has been accused by the family of the late Aaron Swartz of helping to drive the celebrated internet freedom activist to suicide.
Progressive activists throughout America have reacted angrily and with emotion to the news that 26-year old Swartz killed himself by hanging at his apartment in Brooklyn, New York last Friday. He was facing a possible thirty year jail term on charges that he had gained illegal access to a subscription-only service for academic journals. Although the service, known as JSTOR, did not want to bring charges against Swartz, Carmen Ortiz insisted that he should be arraigned and used her powers of prosecutorial discretion to indict him.
Internet activists have launched a White House petition seeking her removal as US Attorney for Massachusetts which can be viewed and signed here by US residents. Once 25,000 people have signed the petition the Obama administration will be obliged to respond. Launched on Saturday the petition is already a quarter of the way to that target which must be met by February 11th.
In their statement, the Swartz family had this to say: “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 US 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.”
Using computers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Swartz hacked into JSTOR’s archives and downloaded nearly 5 million academic articles and journals. A firm disciple of free access to information held on the web, Swartz objected to JSTOR’s business model. The company charged universities and other bodies up to $50,000 a year in subscription charges but paid no compensation to the professors and academics who wrote the articles.
When Swartz was caught, he returned the articles he had downloaded while JSTOR indicated it had no wish to see him prosecuted. MIT, however, temporized, allowing Carmen Ortiz to jump in with a series of swingeingly severe criminal charges that could have sent him to federal jail for three decades, even though the alleged crime was victimless.
At the time, this was how Ortz justified her action:
“…..stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.”
Except, the cynic would quickly add, when the perp is a Wall Street bank or a hedge fund manager. In sharp contrast to the zeal shown in the Swartz case, the Department of Justice, Carmen Ortiz’ employer, is nowhere to be seen when it comes to the pursuit of America’s real criminal class. As ProPublica put it during the height of the Occupy Wall Street campaign: Years after the financial crisis, there have still been no prosecutions of top executives at the major players in the financial crisis. And there won’t be either. But the Aaron Swartz’s of America will be pursued and harried till death.
Aaron Swartz was only 26 when he took his own life, yet he had packed more into those short years than many a person could in two or three lifetimes. The New York Times called him a “wizardly programmer” At age 14 he helped create RSS, the tool that helps blogs function. While still in his teenage years he helped co-found Reddit, possibly the most popular website on the internet. As various commentators have noted, he could have devoted his life to making money but instead committed himself to the cause of internet freedom, lobbying against efforts to censor the internet and subverting Pacer the federal system which charges the public for court documents which their tax dollars have already paid for. The same anger at institutional misbehaviour and greed led him to the fateful confrontation with JSTOR and Carmen Ortiz.
All of which raises this question: what was Ms Ortiz’s motive in her merciless pursuit of Aaron Swartz? Some have suggested revenge for his tilt at Pacer (which at the time brought an FBI investigation), others that his prosecution was part of the Obama administration’s phobic hatred of internet activists, qua Wikileaks. Others that she was doing what all ambitious US Attorneys do, pursue high profile prosecutions to advance their post Department of Justice careers.
Sometimes though it makes more sense to opt for the simple answer, which is that Carmen Ortiz pursued Aaron Swartz because she could. There was no-one to stop her, no-one strong or loud enough to say, ‘Hang on, you should be rifling files at Goldman Sachs’ offices, not harassing Aaron Swartz!. You should be putting Hank Greenberg in jail instead!’
No-one to say that because the cult of Obama worship, the doctrine of no criticism in case you tarnish the gilt around this White House, has made mutes of people who should know and do better. When, for example, the people who should protest, refuse to cry to the heavens when Obama’s drones blow Afghan, Yemeni or Pakistani children to bits, then the Aaron Swartz’s of this world have no chance. And neither do any of us.