Aaron Swartz and Carmen Ortiz

Aaron Swartz is dead. It appears that he took his own life. He was facing prosecution, and the possibility of jail time. I didn’t know him personally, but I am grateful for much of what he accomplished in his too-short life. I knew of him best for his co-founding of Reddit, but obituaries and other accounts of his life show that his energy and achievements went far beyond software development and entrepreneurship.

One of the outcomes of Aaron’s death has been a petition to remove from office Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, “for overreach in the case of Aaron Swartz.” The petition is directed to the Obama administration, which appointed Ortiz.

I have signed the petition. I did not do so lightly. It first occurred to me to sign when I read the following quote from Ortiz in a recent Guardian article.

Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars. It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away.

My reaction was (and is) that if Ortiz said this in the context of the Aaron Swartz case, I don’t want her anywhere near such a case. It is alleged that he copied documents. Copying documents, leaving the originals intact, is not the same sort of taking as stealing money, leaving the victim poorer. To introduce a economic term, copies of documents are not rivalrous goods.

Notice the if in the previous paragraph. It occurred to me that Ortiz may have been misquoted. I didn’t want to jump to the conclusion that she had said something so ridiculous. So I Googled the above quote. One of the many sources I found for it was a web page with the title “USDOJ: US Attorney’s Office – District of Massachusetts”. So the web site of Ortiz’s own organization “credits” her with that exact quote.

My objection to Ortiz as US Attorney is manyfold. First, she is actually responsible for the ridiculous statement quoted above. Second, she sought to have someone convicted of a felony and imprisoned on that ridiculous basis. I’ll stop here, partly because I am in no position to measure Ortiz’s share of the blame for Aaron’s death.