Lawmakers slam DOJ prosecution of Swartz as 'ridiculous, absurd'

House lawmakers blasted federal prosecutors on Tuesday for pushing aggressive hacking charges against Internet activist Aaron Swartz, who killed himself on Friday.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) says his Oversight panel will look into whether federal prosecutors acted inappropriately.

Meanwhile, two other members of the House Judiciary Committee said prosecutors acted too aggressively.

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“The charges were ridiculous and trumped-up,” Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) told The Hill. “It's absurd that he was made a scapegoat. I would hope that this doesn't happen to anyone else.”

Polis called Swartz — a co-creator of Reddit who was accused of stealing articles from a computer archive at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — a "martyr" for why Congress should limit the discretion of prosecutors.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said the government's handling of the case was “pretty outrageous.”

“Based on what I know, I think the Department of Justice was way out of line on the case,” she told The Hill.

All three lawmakers serve on the House Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Justice Department.

The lawmakers worked with Swartz and his group Demand Progress last year to defeat online piracy legislation backed by the entertainment industry.

In 2011, federal prosecutors accused Swartz of breaking into a computer network at MIT and downloading 4.8 million documents from JSTOR, a subscription service for academic articles.

He faced up to 35 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million. His trial was scheduled to begin in April.

In a statement on Saturday, Swartz's family blamed overzealous prosecutors for driving him to take his own life.

“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach,” the family said.

Swartz struggled with depression for years, and had discussed as much publicly.

The Justice Department has not commented on the case since Swartz's suicide, citing concern for his family's privacy. But in a statement last year, the DOJ defended bringing charges against Swartz.

“Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars. It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away,” U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz said in a statement when Swartz was charged.

Issa expressed sympathy with some of Swartz’s goals. While “cybercrime and hacking has to be taken seriously,” he said, Congress should take up Swartz's cause of making more information freely available to the public.

“We're looking at the real question of open government,” Issa said. “Has the government or even MIT been holding back materials that the public has a right to know?”

Issa said he wanted to make sure “that what is paid for is as widely available as possible to the American people.”

Many materials on JSTOR are funded by public universities or government research grants. Subscriptions to JSTOR cost thousands of dollars.

He also said “whether or not there was excessive prosecution is something we’ll look at.”

Since Swartz's death, some advocates have called for Congress to re-examine the decades-old Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, arguing that it's written too vaguely and allows for draconian punishments.

Polis said he is willing to consider changes to the law, and urged Attorney General Eric Holder to set guidelines curtailing the ability of prosecutors to seek overly harsh punishments.

“Prosecutors shouldn't have the kind of discretion to seek absurd penalties for minor crimes,” Polis said.

Lofgren said she isn't sure whether the Judiciary Committee will update the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act this year, but she said it is “certainly something I am looking at.”

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