Activists Rally for Aaron Swartz, Moving from Sadness to Political Action

Originally published in Open Media Boston

by Tate Williams (Staff), April 16, 2013

BOSTON/Dewey Square - The Boston rally to honor programmer and activist Aaron Swartz had tearful moments, but it went beyond remembrance. Supporters of Swartz’s work called for a move from sadness and outrage to sustained political action that will reform computer regulations and the criminal justice system.

More than 100 people—academics, parents, children and 20-somethings—gathered at Dewey Square Saturday to mark what would have been the end of Swartz’s trial for downloading millions of academic papers over an MIT network. Swartz never made it to trial; he took his own life in January at age 26.

He had suffered from depression, but supporters have called his indictment prosecutorial bullying, with drawn out legal proceedings and the threat of up to 35 years in prison contributing to his suicide.

“Aaron might have been found innocent yesterday if he were still alive. Or he might have been found guilty—we’ll never know which one,” said Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, Swartz’s partner, who spoke at the rally. She gave an emotional retelling of what the process was like on him and his family.

“But even if he had been found innocent, [federal prosecutor] Stephen Heymann would have stolen two years of his life. And that’s true for many innocent people, whether they go to prison or whether they try and drag it out and actually have a trial before a jury of their peers. The system steals years of your life. It dehumanizes you.”

The rally was organized by Demand Progress, a civil liberties and government reform nonprofit founded by Swartz and Executive Director David Segal. It followed a “week of action” held by Demand Progress and the Internet Defense League, which sought to reform the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1984, the electronic law of the land that is commonly criticized for being overly harsh and giving the Department of Justice too much latitude.

Following Swartz’s suicide, there have been many calls for CFAA reform and accountability for the prosecutors involved. U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren has introduced legislation referred to as “Aaron’s Law,” that would change key parts of the Act, including the designation of Terms of Service violations as federal crime.

At Saturday’s rally, speakers called this a good start, but went on to demand major changes to the CFAA and copyright law, as well as institutional reform to the way federal crimes are prosecuted beyond cyberlaw.

“As we turn ourselves from grieving and anger to action, we also cannot imagine that our battles can only focus on the Internet, only on hacking or only on copyright,” said Harvard Law Professor Yochai Benkler, who spoke at the rally. “We don’t live in a bubble and part of the travesty that happened to Aaron was typical of a broad pattern of abuse of criminal law enforcement.”

This was a common sentiment at the rally, going further than you might expect at an action to honor an Internet activist. But the speakers argued, especially regarding slippery Internet law, we could all potentially be singled out by a justice system that allows prosecutors so much power. Benkler said that by pursuing Swartz’s conviction, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz was sending a dangerous message:

“I am a hammer, Ortiz said, and the law as it stands says that you are all nails. I just have to choose where to hit.”

Author and Attorney Harvey Silverglate reinforced that view, saying that while in his opinion Swartz committed no crime, federal criminal statutes across the board have become so broad and vague that anyone can be a target.

“I have to say the CFAA is a good place to start, but it’s not a good place to finish,” he told the crowd.

While speakers took a broader approach toward the root causes behind Swartz’s prosecution, the rally and Demand Progress did seek specific initial reforms. Activists called for the passage of Aaron’s Law and accountability for Ortiz and Heymann, the U.S. attorneys who oversaw the case. Ortiz has countered with a statement that her office acted appropriately and had never intended to seek the maximum sentence, instead suggesting six months of jail time in a low security setting.

Earlier in the week, the groups were also opposing a piece of legislation that would actually harshen the CFAA, but House Republicans backed off the proposal after the backlash from the Internet community.

Protestors Saturday celebrated the short-term victory and looked to the long term, marching to John Joseph Moakley U.S. Courthouse and declaring themselves all felons for trivial acts under current Internet law. Demand Progress’s Segal pointed out that under consistent enforcement of the CFAA, pioneers like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg would have found themselves in jail long before their contributions.

As activists move beyond the surge of outrage following Swartz’s death, or explosive actions like the response to SOPA and PIPA in 2012, the challenge will be to translate them into broader institutional change they want to see. As Benkler put it:

“We must act beyond what is familiar to us, beyond CFAA and copyright and we must push against the prosecution system itself. But our action has to be political, public action to change the institutions that made the tragedy of Aaron’s prosecution possible.”