House panel demands briefing over prosecution of Web activist Swartz

The top lawmakers on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Monday demanded a briefing from Justice Department officials about the prosecution of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, who killed himself earlier this month. 

In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said there are "many questions" about how prosecutors handled the case.

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They demanded a briefing from DOJ officials by Monday, Feb. 4. 

In 2011, Swartz was charged with breaking into a computer network at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and downloading 4.8 million documents from JSTOR, a subscription service for academic articles.

Swartz was an accomplished programmer and activist who argued that more online information should be free to the public.

Critics, including Swartz's family and members of Congress, have accused prosecutors of seeking excessive penalties in the case.

The charges carried a maximum penalty of 35 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million. Prosecutors reportedly offered Swartz seven to eight months in prison if he pleaded guilty and told him they would seek seven to eight years if the case went to trial. 

In their letter, Issa and Cummings asked Holder to justify the charges and penalties that prosecutors sought. They asked whether Swartz's campaign against the the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) or his association with advocacy groups influenced the prosecution.

The lawmakers also asked whether the charges, penalties and plea offers were similar to other cases brought under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. attorney in charge of the case, released a statement earlier this month defending her office's conduct, which she said was "appropriate."

"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," she said.