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Exclusive: Aaron Swartz’s Partner, Expert Witness Say Prosecutors Unfairly Targeted Dead Activist

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Outrage is growing over the U.S. Justice Department’s prosecution of the 26-year-old who committed suicide last week just weeks before he was to go on trial. Pioneering computer programmer and cyber-activist Aaron Swartz was facing up to 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine if convicted for using computers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to download millions of academic articles provided by the nonprofit research service JSTOR. As the chief prosecutor Carmen Ortiz defends her actions, we speak to Swartz’s partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, and computer security consultant Alex Stamos, who would have been the chief expert witness at Swartz’s trial. We invited representatives from the U.S. attorney’s office and MIT to join us, but they declined. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show with more on the death and prosecution of Internet freedom activist Aaron Swartz, who killed himself last Friday. At the time of his death, he was facing up to 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine, if convicted at trial, for using computers at MIT to download millions of academic articles provided by the nonprofit research service JSTOR.

Aaron Swartz was 26 years old. At the age of 14, he co-developed Really Simple Syndication, or RSS, the key component of much of the web’s entire publishing infrastructure. By the time he was 19, he had co-founded a company that would merge with Reddit, now one of the country’s most popular websites. He also helped develop the architecture for the Creative Commons licensing system and built the Open Library.

Aaron Swartz’s death has prompted an outpouring of frustration and anger at U.S. prosecutors. On Capitol Hill, Democratic Representative Zoe Lofgren of California has introduced a bill dubbed “Aaron’s Law” to modify the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act by decriminalizing violations of “terms of service” agreements. Republican Congressman Darrell Issa, chair of the House Oversight Committee, is launching a probe into the possible prosecutorial overreach in his case. At Aaron’s funeral, his father blamed prosecutors for his son’s death, saying he was, quote, “killed by the government.” Earlier, his family released a statement saying, quote, “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 U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.”

AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday night, the United States attorney for the District of Massachusetts, Carmen Ortiz, broke her silence about the case. In a written statement, she wrote, quote, “[T]his office’s conduct was appropriate in bringing and handling this case. The career prosecutors handling this matter took on the difficult task of enforcing a law they had taken an oath to uphold, and did so reasonably,” unquote. Ortiz said her office offered Aaron a plea bargain of six months in prison. When the case first came to light, Ortiz was quoted saying, “Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.”

Ortiz issued the statement a day after her husband used Twitter to fire back at his wife’s critics. Tom Dolan, an executive with IBM, wrote, quote, “Truly incredible that in their own son’s obit they blame others for his death and make no mention of the 6-month offer,” he tweeted.

In a moment, we’ll be joined by Aaron Swartz’s girlfriend, but first let’s turn to Aaron Swartz in his own words. This is part of a speech he delivered last May in Washington D.C., when he explained the challenges he sees the Internet facing.

AARON SWARTZ: There’s a battle going on right now, a battle to define everything that happens on the Internet in terms of traditional things that the law understands. Is sharing a video on BitTorrent like shoplifting from a movie store? Or is it like loaning a videotape to a friend? Is reloading a webpage over and over again like a peaceful virtual sit-in or a violent smashing of shop windows? Is the freedom to connect like freedom of speech or like the freedom to murder?

AMY GOODMAN: Aaron Swartz, speaking last May. To watch the full speech, you can go to our website at democracynow.org.

For more we’re joined by Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman. She’s Aaron Swartz’s partner, as well as the founder and executive director of SumOfUs.org. That’s S-U-M-of-Us.org, a global movement for corporate accountability. This is her first television interview since Aaron’s death.

We’ll also be speaking with Alex Stamos in California at Stanford University, chief technology officer of Artemis Internet, a computer security and forensics expert. He planned to testify at Aaron Swartz’s trial. During the upcoming trial, he would have been the chief defense witness.

And we did invite representatives from the U.S. attorney’s office and MIT to join us, but they declined.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Taren, let us begin with you. First of all, our condolences on the loss of Aaron. Aaron committed suicide last Friday. The funeral was just two days ago. And, Taren, it was you who found him. He hung himself in the—your Brooklyn apartment that you shared. Taren, talk about Aaron. Talk about what Aaron—who he was and what he wanted and the effect of this upcoming trial.

TAREN STINEBRICKNER-KAUFFMAN: Well, Aaron was the most—person most dedicated to fighting social injustice of anyone I’ve ever met in my life, and I loved him for it. He used to say—I used to say, “Why don’t you—why we do this thing? It will make you happy.” And he would say, “I don’t want to be happy. I just want to change the world.”

Open access to information was one of the causes that he believed in, but it was far from the only one. He fought for—during the course of this two-year ordeal, he led the fight against SOPA, the Internet censorship bill, which no one thought could be defeated when it was first introduced and which Aaron and millions of others, together, managed to fight back. And he did that all while under the burden of this—this bullying and false charges.

He was just the funniest, most lovely person. He—sorry. He—he loved children. He loved reading out loud. That was one of his favorite things. He loved David Foster Wallace. He started trying to read me Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson out loud from the first volume. We didn’t get that far because it’s very, very long. One of his favorite—favorite books was Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, a fanfic. We would read it to each other as chapters came out online.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk a little about what he went through, his initial reaction to the arrest and this zeal of the prosecutors in Massachusetts to go after him on the downloading of these JSTOR research articles?

TAREN STINEBRICKNER-KAUFFMAN: Yeah, I mean, I wasn’t with him; we didn’t start dating until a few weeks before the indictment was announced publicly, which was several months after his initial arrest. He tried really hard to wall it off. It was obviously very stressful for him, but he tried to keep his friends and family, as much as possible, sort of isolated from—from this. He was very good at protecting other people. He was very distressed by the fact that the prosecution had called two of his closest friends as witnesses at the grand jury, and so he tried to protect everyone else by not giving us any information that would warrant being called as witnesses.

He—he felt, you know, the whole thing was just this big mistake, and he hoped that the prosecutor’s office would realize it, that—you know, that they didn’t—he had done nothing illegal. I mean, as he put it in his press—you know, in the very few press releases and work that he did around this, he likened it to arresting—charging somebody for borrowing too many books from the library, which—you know, all of the articles, he had the right to access individually. The only—the only confusion here was that he had just accessed a lot of them. And he hoped the prosecutors would see the injustice and the unfairness of what they were doing. But they weren’t interested in that. They weren’t—Steve Heymann and Carmen Ortiz’s office were interested in winning; they were interested in a notch on their belt; they were interested in taking a scalp. But they weren’t interested in justice; they weren’t interested in does it actually makes sense for this young man to be labeled a felon for the rest of his life and to go to prison for years and years.

AMY GOODMAN: Taren, we’re going to break, and when we come back, we’ll also be joined by the person who would have been the chief defense witness in this case. Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman is our guest, Aaron’s partner, head of SumOfUs.org. And we’ll be joined by Alex Stamos, who would have testified at the trial, to explain what it is that Aaron did and was fighting for. Usually, our next guest is a consultant for corporations, protecting them from break-ins on the Internet. Today, he will talk about what that means in Aaron’s case. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about the life and the suicide of Aaron Swartz, 26-year-old cyber-activist, social justice activist, who committed suicide last Friday. I want to turn to Aaron’s comments made at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in October 2010. He was talking about the nonprofit subscription service that so many college students and others use around the country called JSTOR.

AARON SWARTZ: I am going to give you one example of something not as big as saving Congress, but something important that you can do right here at your own school. It just requires you willing to get your shoes a little bit muddy. By virtue of being students at a major U.S. university, I assume that you have access to a wide variety of scholarly journals. Pretty much every major university in the United States pays these sort of licensing fees to organizations like JSTOR and Thomson and ISI to get access to scholarly journals that the rest of the world can’t read. And these licensing fees are substantial. And they’re so substantial that people who are studying in India, instead of studying in the United States, don’t have this kind of access. They’re locked out from all of these journals. They’re locked out from our entire scientific legacy. I mean, a lot of these journal articles, they go back to the Enlightenment. Every time someone has written down a scientific paper, it’s been scanned and digitized and put in these collections.

That is a legacy that has been brought to us by the history of people doing interesting work, the history of scientists. It’s a legacy that should belong to us as a commons, as a people, but instead it’s been locked up and put online by a handful of for-profit corporations who then try and get the maximum profit they can out of it. Now, there are people, good people, trying to change this with the open access movement. So, all journals, going forward, they’re encouraging them to publish their work as open access, so open on the Internet, available for download by everybody, available for free copying, and perhaps even modification with attribution and notice.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Aaron Swartz in 2010, speaking at the University of Illinois. Our guests are Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, Aaron’s partner, head of SumOfUs.org; and Alex Stamos, Artemis Internet, planned to testify on Aaron’s behalf during his trial, would have been the chief defense witness. Alex, talk about the significance of what Aaron was saying two years ago.

ALEX STAMOS: Well, Aaron believed very strongly, as he said, that the scientific and cultural background that has been built over the centuries belong to everyone. And obviously, he was willing to risk a lot to test that and to test the walls that had been put up around this continent, he called them.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about how you came to be involved in this case. I mean, usually, you’re working for companies like Goldman Sachs, protecting them. Talk about why you were going to be the chief defense witness.

ALEX STAMOS: I actually knew very little about Aaron’s case other than what I had read online casually, until I was contacted last fall by his new attorneys that were here in San Francisco. As you said, we mostly do corporate work. Aaron was actually our first criminal defendant. And generally, this is not the kind of work that interests us or has an interesting computer security aspect. But when we were contacted by the lawyers, it did intrigue us that he was facing such serious charges for—even if you believe all the facts in the government indictment—actions that are very difficult to really qualify as computer hacking. And so, we decided to join the case as expert witnesses. And as the case went on, that belief that what he did is very hard to fit into that box that they tried to fit it in of criminal hacking activity, you know, that feeling grew as we saw the evidence and went to MIT, talked to witnesses, and saw the case the government was laying out against him.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And again, what exactly was it that he did that you would say does not qualify as computer hacking? And why would you say the—what would be the line that you would draw on this? And also, your speculation as to why the government even pursued this case, if you have a theory, why they felt so strongly that they had to pursue him?

ALEX STAMOS: So, Aaron was accused of, as been discussed a couple times, downloading too many files, or checking too many books out of the library. He found a loophole that he—that was a convenient way for him to get access to a lot of the JSTOR documents. And that loophole is the fact that MIT made two interesting decisions. First, MIT decided to license the JSTOR database in a way where access was provided to the entire MIT network without asking for any kind of individual authentication. That’s often not true with JSTOR databases. At a lot of universities, and actually today at MIT, if you want to access JSTOR and you have that affiliation, you have to say, “I’m Bob Smith. I’m a student. I’m” — and the university authenticates that you are, and so now you have an identity with JSTOR where they can monitor what you’re doing and see how many downloads you have. MIT didn’t have that setup. They wanted a setup that was completely open for people just to go to the JSTOR website, be able to click on a document and read it. And that’s the deal they made with JSTOR.

The other decision that MIT made was that they decided to run an extremely open, unmonitored network, and in a method that allowed people to jump on from wireless or wired access points all over the campus and take on the identity of somebody affiliated with MIT. This is an intentional decision. They allow visitors, they allow people who just happen to be on campus this access. And they do so with very little need to authenticate or say who you are. And so, those things combined, Aaron realized, would allow him to go onto campus and to download articles from a variety of locations.

You know, I can’t actually condone everything Aaron did. I think—as I have written online, I think what he did was perhaps, you know, discourteous or inconsiderate of taking advantage of the, you know, library privileges that he was basically granted. But at no time did he actually do any actions that I would consider hacking. What Aaron did is he went to MIT, and he started downloading documents. And JSTOR, at some point, noticed a lot of documents were being downloaded from one address at MIT, and so they would cut off that address. Aaron would notice and then just ask the MIT network to give him a new one. That’s a pretty common thing. That’s something that people do, you know, all day at university and corporate or even like on a Starbucks Wi-Fi network. And it’s that action, though, of going and requesting a new identity that the government seems to consider wire fraud or computer fraud.

And probably one of the things that he did that brought it to a head was, in the end, Aaron—I believe this was his motivation—wanted to find a place that he could leave his laptop for several days to continue downloading without him having to be there, and so he opened up and went into an unlocked wiring closet and plugged his computer into a switch. That, MIT was calling trespassing. And that’s kind of the activity that allowed them to catch him, and seems to be where they believe he massively overstepped the line. But at no time even during that would he do anything that I would consider hacking.

AMY GOODMAN: We should say that JSTOR refused to endorse any prosecution of Aaron Swartz—the not-for-profit service, member of the Internet community—and said, “Aaron returned the data he had in his possession and JSTOR settled any civil claims we might have had against him in June 2011.” And earlier this week, before Aaron died, they announced—JSTOR announced that 1,200 journals from its archive had been opened for limited reading by the public. Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, Aaron’s partner, still with us from Washington, D.C., just flew back from Chicago, where she attended Aaron’s funeral. Can you talk about the broader issues here?

TAREN STINEBRICKNER-KAUFFMAN: I think that there are a couple of broader issues that Aaron’s, you know, senseless prosecution and death highlight. And one is, of course, this freedom of information issue and open access issue, that the—as the clip you played of Aaron says, you know, the scientific legacy of academics and researchers from over the centuries, often most of it funded in one way or another by taxpayers and by the government, ought to be available to everybody in the world. It ought to be available. And that’s one of the things that—you know, that I think—that I hope will someday—not just research going forward, but all research ever in history ought to be put up for open access online.

The second is this issue of how the law addresses computer crimes or alleged computer crimes, and that, you know, the law, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, is so broadly written and so ambiguous that prosecutors, like Steve Heymann, who just want—as I said earlier, just want notches on their belt, can throw the book—can charge somebody like Aaron with 35 years in prison for mildly inconsiderate behavior.

And the third issue is the broader problems in our criminal justice system. Why does someone like Steve Heymann have the power to do this, unbridled power? Why would you charge somebody with up to 35 years in prison if you actually think that all they deserve is six months, as the plea deal suggested that? And this happens to people every day in our system, and most of them have many fewer resources than Aaron and much less support, and don’t have the option necessarily even of considering hiring a lawyer and going to trial over the course of two years, and are forced to take the plea deals when they’re not guilty or when the plea deals are completely unjust. And I think that we need—we need broad criminal justice reform in this country. We incarcerate more people per capita than any other country in the world, and we don’t see lower crime rates because of it. There’s—there’s justice, and then there’s justice. And right now, we’re not—our system does not promote justice. Our system is punitive. Our system is Kafkaesque. Our system is unfair. And Aaron and millions of other people suffer because of it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I wanted to—following up on that, wanted to refer to comments of the House Oversight Committee chairman, Darrell Issa, who’s a Republican of California, who says he wants to launch into an investigation into how the U.S. attorney’s office pressed charges against Aaron for downloading these articles. He told The Huffington Post, quote, “Had [Aaron] 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.” And this whole issue of prosecutorial overreach on computer crimes, I’m wondering if, Alex—Alex Stamos, you might want to comment on that.

ALEX STAMOS: Yeah, Taren’s got a good point. One of the key problems here are the definitions in the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. And there’s this one word that is very difficult for even those of us who work professionally in this area to understand, and that word is “authorized.” Multiple of counts in the indictment against Aaron existed because they said that he had exceeded what he was authorized to do either on the MIT network or the JSTOR network. And the term “authorized” in an Internet context, it makes a lot less sense than it does in the real world. You know, for example, I’m sure there are thousands of people right now going to democracynow.org watching the live stream. Did you authorize any of those people to do that, to interact with your computer, to take on the cost that you are taking of streaming that video to them? No, you didn’t. And of course they’re allowed to, and you want them to, but how you express that authorization to them is a very difficult thing.

And at what point does somebody doing something that is allowed become in excess of authorization? What Aaron was doing was exactly the same activity that thousands of people do at MIT every year: He was going and looking at documents. Now, he was doing it at a much wider scale. He did it more than they seemed to want. But at what point does he exceed authorization? And by having these incredibly broad definitions and a word that doesn’t really mean anything, like “authorized,” we end up in a situation where if a prosecutor doesn’t like you or doesn’t like what you did, if it happened to use a computer, they can find a way to call it “hacking” and an abuse of that system.

AMY GOODMAN: Just as we went to broadcast today, the grassroots organization Demand Progress, which Aaron Swartz helped found, launched a new campaign calling on Congress to end prosecutorial abuses and to pass Congressmember Zoe Lofgren’s bill amending computer fraud law. The group sent a letter to members, reading, quote, “We are sad. We’re tired. We’re frustrated and we’re angry at a system that let this happen to Aaron. We and Aaron’s friends and family have been in touch with lawmakers to ask for help. We’re asking them to help rein in a criminal justice system run amok. Authorities are encouraged to bring frivolous charges and hold decades of jail time over the heads of people accused of victimless crimes,” unquote. More information on the campaign is at DemandProgress.org. And as we wrap up, Taren, what your plans are, what this campaign will mean? I know there will be a memorial service for Aaron Swartz at Cooper Union at 4:00 on Saturday here in New York City. Where this campaign is headed?

TAREN STINEBRICKNER-KAUFFMAN: Well, look, I think that the best legacy that—the best tribute we can pay to Aaron’s legacy is to continue to fight as hard as we can to make this world a more just, fairer place. That’s the thing that he cared most about. And I’m going to keep doing that. I think that, you know, that Aaron’s Law, we’ve yet to sort of look at all of the details of the law, and I want to make sure that it covers—that it’s as sweeping an amendment as possible, but clearly, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act must be amended.

And I also hope that this can serve as a wake-up call for the broader issues in the criminal justice system. It’s not just this one act. Our system is deeply, deeply unfair. And as I said earlier, millions of people suffer because of it needlessly. And I hope that—you know, in this country, it’s very hard for people to—for politicians to look weak on crime, but that’s not what this is. This is—this is about justice, and nobody should have to face what Aaron faced. And I hope we can help save people in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Again, our condolences on the death of your partner, Aaron Swartz. Taren is head of SumOfUs.org. Alex Stamos, thanks for joining us from Stanford University, head of Artemis Internet, was going to be one of the chief witnesses, defense witnesses, at Aaron’s trial. Of course, after his death, the U.S. prosecutor announced all the charges were dropped. And by the way, if you’d like to go to our website, we authorize all of you to go to democracynow.org. Read, watch, listen to our shows, read the transcripts. On Monday, we devoted the whole show to Aaron’s case. As well, we played the speech he just recently gave in Washington, D.C., at the Freedom to Connect conference. And you can to democracynow.org.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Tavis Smiley is holding a summit on poverty tonight at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He’ll speak to us. Stay with us.

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