Court orders names to be withheld before release of Aaron Swartz records

The estate of Aaron Swartz had argued that the personal information was important to the public's understanding of the investigation

A U.S. federal court has modified a protective order to allow disclosure of the court records of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, but ruled that names and other personal identifying information of those involved in his arrest and prosecution should be redacted.

The court also ordered that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and online database JSTOR should be allowed to review and redact information relating to the weakness of MIT networks, which Swartz allegedly used to download JSTOR documents.

Swartz, who committed suicide in January, was charged with wire fraud, computer fraud and other crimes for allegedly accessing and downloading over 4 million articles from JSTOR. If convicted, Swartz could have faced up to 35 years in prison and a fine of US$1 million, according to a statement in July, 2011 from the office of U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Carmen M. Ortiz. (

His suicide led to concerns that the government had misused its powers, and prompted many people including lawmakers to propose amendments to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) under which he was charged. Swartz's family and partner said soon after his death that decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney's office and at MIT contributed to his suicide, and his death was the product of "a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach."

The government dismissed charges against Swartz shortly after his death. But his estate filed to remove a protective order of November 2011, barring disclosure of documents, files or records except in certain situations. The estate cited the need to disclose the records to the U.S. Congress after a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform decided to investigate the prosecution of Swartz, and review one of the statutes under which he was charged.

MIT, JSTOR and the government, however, asked that the names and other personal identification of their staff referred to in the documents should be redacted.

As the Congress and the media began investigating Swartz's prosecution, employees of the government, MIT and JSTOR were subjected to a variety of threats and harassment by individuals purportedly retaliating in the name of Swartz, Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts noted in his order on Monday. Computer networks of the government and MIT also were intruded into.

In a hoax in February, an unidentified individual called MIT and reported that a gunman was on campus seeking to harm the president of MIT in retaliation for its involvement in the events surrounding Swartz's death. MIT's campus was locked down for several hours while law enforcement searched for the gunman, the judge noted in his order.

The judge said the court concludes that "the estate's interest in disclosing the identity of individuals named in the production, as it relates to enhancing the public's understanding of the investigation and prosecution of Mr. Swartz, is substantially outweighed by the interest of the government and the victims in shielding their employees from potential retaliation."

In contrast, the estate did not identify specific documents for which redaction of identifying information would undercut the public's understanding of the investigation and prosecution, the judge wrote in his order.

MIT is preparing its report on its role in Swartz's prosecution. JSTOR said in January it settled any civil claims it might have had against him in June 2011.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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