The Congressional Backlash Over Aaron Swartz's Suicide Has Begun

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As lawmakers decry the Justice Department's treatment of Aaron Swartz, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa says he's launching an investigation into the matter. Swartz, a 26-year-old computer savant who killed himself last Friday in the face of hacking charges, would've been a hero if he'd had a different profession, said the congressman. "I'm not condoning his hacking, but he’s certainly someone who worked very hard," Issa told The Huffington Post on Monday night. "Had he been a journalist and taken that same material that he gained from MIT, he would have been praised for it. It would have been like the Pentagon Papers." Instead, Swartz was looking at 35 years in jail and $1 million in fines. "It does seem like it was an awful lot," said Issa. "But again, we're in the business of finding for sure."

In the meantime, as if on cue, Rep. Zoe Lofgren took to Reddit, a site that Swartz helped to build, to announce "Aaron's Law," a set of reforms to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), the law that Swartz allegedly broke. Lofgren, a Democrat from California, posted a draft version of her bill on the site and said that she was seeking co-sponsors. "We should prevent what happened to Aaron from happening to other Internet users," Lofgren wrote. "The government was able to bring such disproportionate charges against Aaron because of the broad scope of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and the wire fraud statute. It looks like the government used the vague wording of those laws to claim that violating an online service's user agreement or terms of service is a violation of the CFAA and the wire fraud statute." The Electronic Frontier Foundation said as much in a blog post after Swartz's death, calling the CFAA "draconian" and the measures that condemned the young computer genius "extremely problematic."

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In a way, the backlash was inevitable. Swartz's suicide was tragic enough in and of itself, but in the days that followed, an increasingly unsettling set of details emerged about how the federal prosecution tried to bully Swartz into a plea deal. It certainly didn't help the Justice Department when Swartz's family called their son's untimely death "the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach." Issa also hinted that Swartz is just one of many who've been boxed into a corner. "Overprosecution is a tool often used to get people to plead guilty rather than risk sentencing," Issa said. Friends of Swartz's prosecutors, meanwhile, have taken to Twitter to point out that Swartz was offered six months of jail time in exchange for guilty pleas for all 13 criminal counts.

But this is only the beginning. As the ranks of the outraged now include everyone from Anonymous to Zoe Lofgren, and as the battle against SOPA taught us, these are folks that do not give up easily. The Swartz family said, "Aaron's death is not simply a personal tragedy." And it's not. It's become a cause supported by thousands if not millions of people who want to ensure that the young activist didn't die in vain.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.