Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) have asked the Justice Department for a briefing on the reasons for bringing criminal charges against Internet activist Aaron Swartz, who died of an apparent suicide Jan. 11.
Swartz had led an Internet effort to block passage of SOPA and PIPA piracy legislation, which was eventually scuttled in part because of that opposition. Issa, a former tech exec whose district is in Northern California had also actively opposed to the bills.
In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, they have asked what factors went into seeking a raft of felony charges with stiff penalties for Swartz allegedly using MIT computers to illegally download scientific journals (a reported 4.8 million documents) from a subscription site.
Among the questions they want answered are whether Swartz opposition to SOPA or PIPA played into the decision to charge him with 13 felony counts carrying penalties of up to 50 years in prison and $1 million in fines.
They also want to know what plea offers were made, how the charges or those offered compared with other prosecutions of computer fraud, what factors went into sentencing, and why the government modified its original July 2011 four felony count charges to 13 in September 2012.
They have requested the briefing be no later than Monday, Feb. 4.
Demand Progress, the activist group Swartz founded to help fight SOPA/PIPA. praised the move.
"We commend Representatives Issa and Cummings for taking the first steps in an investigation into Aaron's prosecution," said Demand Progress executive director David Segal. "We believe that a non-partisan inquiry into prosecutors' handling of Aaron's case will air important facts, demonstrate the over-breadth of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act -- under which he was prosecuted, and might even reveal misconduct on the part of the prosecutors who led the crusade against him."
The Obama Justice Department has taken steps to crack down on online piracy, with plenty of support from TV and film studios who are increasingly moving their product online. As commerce, government services, health monitoring, education and more move online, there is arguably a growing national interest in insuring that information is secure, and in treating online theft as a crime.
Last week, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked Holder to look into what he called its overly aggressive prosecution of Swartz.