There can be no dispute that the death of Aaron Swartz – the Internet activist who took his own life on Friday, January 11 – is tragic. There can also be no dispute that the grief and anger his family feel is very real. The question is what the appropriate focus for that anger should be in order to give meaning to Swartz’s life – and death.
Swartz, who had blogged about his own battles with depression, was a leading activist involved with the movement to make information freely available on the internet, and is credited with helping to lead the protests that ultimately defeated the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) – a statute that would have significantly broadened law enforcement powers in policing internet content that may violate U.S. copyright laws. Swartz’s suicide came as he faced federal charges of wire fraud and computer fraud arising from his alleged efforts to make freely available an enormous archive of research articles and similar documents offered by JSTOR, an online academic database, through computers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The allegations in the indictment he faced were a tribute to Swartz’s computer acumen, describing the technological means that Swartz had used to access and download approximately 2 million documents from the JSTOR subscription archive by unauthorized access to the computers at MIT.
Swartz’s family has released a statement in which they blame his death on the decision by federal prosecutors in the District of Massachusetts to pursue “an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims.” Contrary to the family’s assertion that the prosecution caused Swartz to take his own life, we suggest that the appropriate focus here is not on prosecutorial overreaching, but rather on Congress’s decision to criminalize certain conduct and to set sentencing guidelines that would likely have led to imprisonment if Swartz were convicted.
It is true that the maximum statutory sentence of imprisonment for the wire fraud charge in the indictment against Swartz is 30 years. But there is no question that the likely sentence that Swartz would have faced if convicted of wire fraud and/or the other charges in the indictment would have been far less than that. The advisory range under the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines would have depended on the loss (or intended loss) suffered, among other things, but Swartz likely faced (based on back of the envelope calculations) a sentence of no more than two to four years in prison – a fact that he almost certainly knew from the lawyer who represented him. While four years in federal prison is significant, it is much less than the 30-year sentence mentioned by the family.
It is also not entirely clear that the prosecutors’ decision to pursue charges against Swartz was unreasonable. This is not just a case alleging the distribution of materials protected by copyright law – an issue on which there is fair debate as to whether conduct should be criminalized. Rather, in this case, Swartz was accused of having accessed the MIT computer systems and the JSTOR subscription (for which MIT paid approximately $50,000) through illicit means. There were also allegations that Swartz’s computer intrusions crashed some computers and caused some legitimate subscribers to the JSTOR service to lose access for a period of time. Thus, assuming the truth of the allegations in the indictment, the alleged crime here was not entirely victimless. Moreover, everyone agrees that illegally accessing a computer system is not conduct that should be condoned. For these reasons, Swartz’s family’s attacks on the prosecutors as overreaching – while understandable given their grief and anger – may actually be misplaced.
On the other hand, there is a fair question whether the conduct with which Swartz was charged is really the kind of conduct for which we need to send a person with no other criminal record to prison for a period of years. That, however, is not an issue of decision-making by the prosecutor’s office. Rather, that is a question for Congress, both in terms of establishing criminal liability and in terms of setting astronomical maximum statutory sentences (which increased the base offense level for this crime). And it is a question for the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which has raised Guidelines levels over the years. It is also a question for Congress in terms of setting Guidelines scoring that increasingly fails to reflect any expertise of the Sentencing Commission, but rather reflects only a congressional mandate to support increasingly harsh advisory sentences under the Guidelines for white-collar offenses.
Prosecutors may have been justified in seeking charges against Swartz for his conduct. But if his family, friends and supporters wish Swartz’s death to have as much meaning as his life, they should focus instead on the decisions that created the harsh potential penalties that Swartz faced.