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Rep. Darrell Issa investigating whether prosecutors 'threw the book' at Aaron Swartz

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aaron swartz
aaron swartz

US Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) has said he is investigating whether prosecutors were overzealous in going after Aaron Swartz, the online activist and Reddit co-founder who committed suicide last week and was set to stand trial for copying articles from the JSTOR database. Issa told The Huffington Post that while the investigation was ongoing, overprosecution may have been a problem for Swartz and others, even if actual crimes had been committed. "If someone is genuinely guilty of something and you bring them up on charges, that’s fine," he said. "But throw the book at them and find all kinds of charges and cobble them together so that they’ll plea to a 'lesser included' is a technique that I think can sometimes be inappropriately used." Swartz was facing up to 35 years in prison if he did not agree to a plea bargain.

"Throw the book at them and find all kinds of charges and cobble them together so that they’ll plea to a 'lesser included'..."

Issa hasn't always supported open access of the sort Swartz was pushing for with the JSTOR downloading tool: in 2012, he introduced a bill that would have stripped requirements to make publicly-funded research results freely accessible. Like many others, though, he expressed sympathy for Swartz. "I’m not condoning his hacking, but he’s certainly someone who worked very hard," Issa said. "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." If Issa does find cause to believe Swartz was overprosecuted, he could push for a more formal investigation into the matter. He has previously spoken out against SOPA/PIPA and been a prominent opponent of the Justice Department under Obama, particularly during the "Fast and Furious" arms scandal.

Swartz's suicide has caused a larger reevaluation of how he and other hackers are being prosecuted. MIT is opening an internal investigation of its role in the case against him, and Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) has proposed an amendment to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act that would prevent imposing "outlandishly severe penalties" for relatively innocuous offenses. So far, Issa hasn't committed to any concrete action, but he's one of a growing number of people rallying behind Swartz's cause.