fb-pixel Skip to main content

Aaron Swartz’s estate seeks release of documents

Internet activist Aaron Swartz was charged with hacking.Noah Berger/Reuters/File

The estate of Aaron Swartz, the Internet activist who was charged with hacking by the federal government and later committed suicide, filed a ­motion in federal court in ­Boston Friday to allow release of documents in the case that has generated national controversy and raised questions over the US attorney’s aggressive pursuit of a stiff sentence.

Swartz, who took his life on Jan. 11, was arrested in Boston in 2011 and charged with hacking into MIT’s network and downloading millions of articles from JSTOR, a large subscription-­based scholarly journal archive.

After Swartz’s death, many decried US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz’s prosecution of the case, and a congressional inquiry into the handling of the matter was opened. Swartz’s family and friends, as well as Internet activists and others, have said the outdated laws on computer fraud and abuse need to change.


When reached at their home, the Swartz family ­declined to comment Friday night.

Along with seeking release of the documents, which are prohibited from public disclosure by a protective order, the motion filed in US District Court of Massachusetts Friday requests that the names and ­titles of all MIT and JSTOR ­employees, as well as law enforcement officials, not be withheld.

“Both Congress and the public at large have an important role to play in determining what conduct is considered criminal, particularly in the relatively new and rapidly evolving context of so-called ‘computer crimes,’ ” attorneys Elliot R. Peters, Daniel Purcell, and Michael J. Pineault wrote in the motion. Swartz’s lawyers could not be reached for comment Friday night.

The representatives said the protective order “hinders the public’s access to vital information about Mr. Swartz’s case without any substantial justifications.”

Both the government and the defense agree that personal information, such as Social ­Security numbers, e-mail prefixes, and phone numbers, should be redacted from the materials. Beyond those, the ­estate’s attorneys believe that all other redactions, or the withholding of certain names and details, are unnecessary.


The lawyers stated that the redactions of some names and titles would make the “documents at issue materially less intelligible and thus far less useful to Congress or whoever might review them.”

In another development, Jack W. Pirozzolo, the First ­Assistant US Attorney for ­Massachusetts, has become ­involved in the Swartz case. He has taken a role because he has been involved in the discussions on the modifications of the protective order, Pirozzolo said Friday night.

“As you can see from the ­motion itself, the United States and Mr. Swartz’s attorneys have been discussing over the past few weeks a way to ensure that Congress and the public receive access to appropriate information subject to the protective ­order. while at the same time taking into account the interests of individuals who may be affected by modification of the order,” he said.

“Although the United States and representatives of Mr. Swartz agreed on many proposed modifications to the ­order, the United States and Mr. Swartz’s representatives did not reach agreement on the scope of the redactions,” Pirozzolo said.

“The United States expects to respond to the motion within the time provided by the district court rules,” he said. “It will also request that individuals potentially affected by the modification of the order be given an opportunity to be heard on the proposed modifications.”

Swartz committed suicide after a two-year legal battle during which he faced 13 felony charges and up to 35 years in prison. Prosecutors in Ortiz’s office said they would not agree to a plea deal with Swartz ­unless he pleaded guilty to the felony charges and served a sentence of four to six months in prison. Swartz rejected the offer and was expected to stand trial in April.


Derek J. Anderson can be reached at derek.anderson@