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Berners-Lee Calls Prosecution of Aaron Swartz ‘Travesty’

World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee
Tim Berners-Lee, World Wide Web inventor, is seen here in a Sept. 15, 2010 photo. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, said today that the prosecution of Aaron Swartz, an Internet activist who killed himself while facing computer-fraud charges, was a “travesty of justice.”

Berners-Lee made the remarks in an interview after a memorial service for Swartz at the Central Avenue Synagogue in Highland Park, Illinois, about 25 miles north of Chicago. More than 200 people attended, reported on its Tech Blog.

Swartz’s father reiterated that he holds the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and U.S. prosecutors responsible for his son’s death. The family blames authorities for engaging in a campaign of “intimidation and prosecutorial overreach” in charging Swartz with crimes that carried a potential sentence of more than 30 years. The case has raised questions about whether federal anti-hacking legislation is too broad.

“It was a senseless trial,” Robert Swartz said at the service. “We tried to get MIT to show compassion and it was inconceivable to me that they wouldn’t. They said they were neutral, but they cooperated with the prosecutors. Aaron didn’t commit suicide but was killed.”

As an outspoken advocate for unfettered access to information online, Swartz was a symbol of the fight against corporate control of data that could serve the public good.

Aaron, 26, was found dead in his Brooklyn, New York apartment Jan. 11. In the wake of his death, ruled by the New York Medical Examiner’s Office as a suicide by hanging, he became a symbol in a debate about whether the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the 1986 law under which he was charged, gives prosecutors and hacking victims too much leeway in seeking harsh punishments.

Law’s Overreach

Swartz was indicted in July 2011 for allegedly downloading more than 4 million documents from JSTOR, a fee-based service for scientific and literary journals, through an MIT connection. Swartz was challenging the idea that access to academic documents should be confined to the elite, and was scared of the prospect of going to prison, according to his lawyer, Elliot Peters, of San Francisco-based Keker & Van Nest LLP.

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act fails to distinguish between hacking for social causes and flagrant criminal activity, wrote Jennifer Granick, director of civil liberties at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School and former defense lawyer for computer hackers, in a widely shared essay about Swartz’s death.

Orin Kerr, a law professor at George Washington University, wrote that the charges against Swartz were based on a fair reading of the law, and that the “charges brought here were pretty much what any good federal prosecutor would have charged.”

Computer Prodigy

MIT declined to comment beyond a statement from President Rafael Reif ordering an investigation of the institute’s role in Swartz’s case. U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz dismissed the charges against Swartz yesterday in a filing in federal court, citing his death.

As a teenager, Swartz helped create a technology called Really Simple Syndication, or RSS, which lets Web users subscribe to updates. He also co-founded the news and information site Reddit as well as Demand Progress, a group that advocated against Internet piracy legislation, according to his website. He had written on his blog about battling depression.

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