Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman met her boyfriend’s parents the night before he was indicted. She brought him animal crackers to cheer him — and later books, hugs, whatever it would take to help Aaron Swartz face federal computer hacking charges in Boston’s federal court.
The trial was supposed to start two weeks ago. Instead, in January, she found his dead body. Facing years in prison, he had hanged himself at his Brooklyn home.
On Saturday, Stinebrickner-Kauffman faced a crowd of more than 150 in Boston’s Dewey Square and called for more humane prosecution of federal computer laws so that people such as Swartz, or anyone else, should not face prison time for acts such as accessing a database of academic articles.
“We have to rein in prosecutorial power,” she said, calling for an overhaul of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act used to arrest Swartz in 2011 for allegedly hacking into a scholarly archive and downloading millions of articles. “We need fundamental criminal justice reform. We just have to have it in this country and we’re not going to go away until we have it.”
Swartz’s suicide triggered a national debate over whether prosecutors were overzealous in pursuing charges against the 26-year-old computer wunderkind, who helped create the RSS information-distribution software and who merged his start-up with the popular website Reddit.com. Others feared the failure to treat security breaches seriously could embolden others to carry out more damaging thefts in the future.
At the time of his indictment in July 2011, US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz’s office said Swartz had hacked into the MIT network to download the documents and then, when computer security tried to block him, he allegedly broke into a basement closet at MIT to hard-wire his computer to the network.
“Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar and whether you take documents, data, or dollars,’’ Ortiz said at the time.
But Swartz pleaded not guilty. His girlfriend said he felt he didn’t violate the law because he had legal access to the documents and noted that he did not harm anyone or act for personal gain.
On Saturday, protesters said the law, created before the World Wide Web, gives prosecutors too much discretion to target people such as Swartz or anyone who violates the terms of a website’s user agreement. They said anyone who creates a fake online profile or borrows someone’s password, depending on the website’s rules, could be vulnerable to criminal prosecution as well.
“He committed no crime in my view,” said Harvey Silverglate, a lawyer and civil rights advocate at the rally. “I actually think he would’ve won his case. But his life was ruined and ended by an injustice and a totally ill-considered prosecution.”
Yochai Benkler, a Harvard law professor who also spoke at the rally, said in an interview that people who steal credit card numbers online and commit other serious crimes should be prosecuted, but not young people raised on an Internet where information is considered widely accessible. “It was basically doing something that his entire generation embraces as its own,” he said.
David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress, a nonprofit that he and Swartz founded and which led Saturday’s rally, said many innovators besides Swartz skirted the rules in the name of progress, such as Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg.
Swartz’s suicide has reverberated across the country. Congress has opened an inquiry into how the prosecutors handled the case and lawmakers have gone back and forth over changing the law.
MIT has been hacked at least three times since his death and in February, the campus was shaken when a caller falsely claimed that there was a gunman on campus who planned to target the president Rafael Reif in retaliation for Swartz’s death.
In March, masked demonstrators showed up at Ortiz’s home in Milton and dropped off a cake at her house decorated with the words “Justice for Aaron,” frightening neighbors and young children.
On Saturday, his girlfriend urged people to refrain from threats or violence against anyone involved in the case, calling it “wrong and counterproductive” and “a dishonor to Aaron’s memory.”
Ortiz declined comment on Saturday through a spokeswoman. She has expressed condolences for Swartz’s death and also urged protesters to express their views at the courthouse instead, where her office is located and where Swartz was being prosecuted.
At the time of his indictment, Swartz was facing up to 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine. Later prosecutors offered him six months in federal prison if he pleaded guilty.
Swartz refused the deal and vowed to continue the case. But privately, he struggled with depression.
On Saturday, many demonstrators remembered Swartz’s struggle as they called for the ouster of Ortiz and prosecutor Stephen Heymann at Dewey Square.
Then, as a band played, they marched to the courthouse where he was to have been prosecuted.
Stinebrickner-Kauffman, a nonprofit director now based in San Francisco, said the system overwhelmed even Swartz, who had the resources to hire good lawyers. That day in January, she prodded him to get out of bed, but he would not.
“Aaron might have been found innocent yesterday if he were still alive,” she said. “He might have been found guilty. We’ll never know which one.”