DOJ uses Aaron Swartz's 'Open Access Manifesto' to justify harsh prosecution

Prosecutors wanted Swartz to serve jail time on a felony charge to deter others from committing similar offenses

The Department of Justice didn't simply consider Aaron Swartz's alleged crime of copying files when proposing his 35-year jail sentence, according to reports; the DOJ also took into account Swartz's "Guerilla Open Access Manifesto," a document he wrote in 2008 in which he said that freely sharing knowledge, regardless of copyrights, was a "moral imperative."

Swartz was a 26-year-old hacktivist who took his own life last month after facing a variety of charges in a Massachusetts federal court, including computer intrusion, wire fraud, and data theft stemming from allegations that he stole millions of scholarly articles and documents from an MIT subscription-based service called JSTOR. His intent was to make the content free available. He potentially faced decades of jail time, along with a fine of up to $1 million.

Since his death, critics have argued that the prosecutors pursuing Swartz were overzealous, proposing a penalty that far outweighed the alleged crimes. U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz later acknowledged that there had been no evidence to warrant severe punishment. A joint congressional committee, led by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), is investigating how prosecutors handled the case.

In recent briefing with congressional staffers about the case, a DOJ representative said Swartz's "Guerilla Open Access Manifesto" played a role in the prosecution, according to the Huffington Post. In the manifesto, Swartz decried the fact that while information has become increasingly digitized in the Internet Age, much of it remains inaccessible to all but the wealthiest people. "Liberating the information locked up by the publishers and sharing them with your friends ... is called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn't immoral -- it's a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy," he wrote.

Swartz called for a massive dissemination of all information:

There is no justice in following unjust laws. It's time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.

We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that's out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.

Under federal statute, courts are supposed to impose an "adequate deterrence to criminal conduct" when considering punishment. Prosecutors said they believed Swartz's Manifesto made clear that he intended to share the academic articles widely, according to the Huffington Post.

Steven Reich, an associate deputy attorney general, reportedly told Congressional staffers that "that prosecutors were in part influenced by wanting to deter others from committing similar offenses," reports the Huffington Post.

Citing anonymous sources, the article also said the prosecution had initially proposed giving Swartz a three-month jail sentence in exchange for a guilty plea to a felony charge. "Some Congressional staffers left the briefing with the impression that prosecutors believed they needed to convict Swartz of a felony that would put him in jail for a short sentence in order to justify bringing the charges in the first place, according to two aides with knowledge of the briefing," according to the report.

This story, "DOJ uses Aaron Swartz's 'Open Access Manifesto' to justify harsh prosecution," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.