Rest in Peace, Internet Freedom Activist Aaron Swartz

January 16th, 2013

Aaron Swartz was a promising young mind in the world of information technology. He contributed to the development of RSS feeds, which bloggers use every day to reach readers. He was a co-founder of Reddit, one of the most powerful information-sharing sites on the web. At 26 years of age, Aaron had done more to create jobs, new technology, and prosperity than any government bureaucrat ever will.

However, an overzealous prosecutor’s misunderstanding of information technology ultimately forced Swartz into an untenable situation. After Swartz paid the required subscription fees, he downloaded millions of publicly-funded academic journals from JSTOR and then published them online, hoping to spread information for educational purposes. JSTOR’s mission statement is to facilitate just this type of availability of information, and the non-profit organization has since expanded its free content program in Swartz’ honor. Federal prosecutors charged him with a barrage of felonies for downloading these academic journals, carrying over 50 years worth of prison time. In fact, Swartz was facing more time than he would have had he committed manslaughter, robbed a bank, or attempted to engage in human trafficking.

Bullying by the Prosecution?

In over 95% of criminal cases, defendants plead guilty whether or not they are actually guilty of the crime. Plea deals and sentencing have become a process of bargaining whereby prosecutors stack charges in hopes of creating a frightful-sounding potential outcome, thus raising the risk for a defendant who would dare plead not guilty. Then, a more acceptable sounding plea deal is offered in exchange for a guilty plea. Often, people will confess guilt to crimes they didn’t commit just to avoid any possibility of a harsh sentence.

Aaron Swartz created an automated process to do something that people are effectively allowed to do, only more quickly. He downloaded millions of articles, which he paid for the right to download, using a script that does not constitute hacking. If his publishing of the data violated some form of copyright, then a DMCA notice could have been used to force the removal of the content from wherever it was published. The prosecutor in this case misunderstood the nature of Swartz’ program.

Felony Breach of Contract?

It’s possible that Aaron Swartz violated his Terms of Use with JSTOR. If that were the case, the organization behind JSTOR could have grounds to sue. They did just that and dropped charges after working it out with Swartz. To any reasonable person, that constitutes justice being done.

However, citing obscure language in the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, prosecutors charged him with a range of felonies, essentially just for allegedly violating a private Terms of Use contract. Are people going to go to prison for violating T-Mobile or Verizon cell phone contracts now? Where is the line on something like this?

Ultimately, after his death, prosecutors dropped the charges, but not until their de facto kidnapping threats so brutalized his quality of life that he decided to end it on his own terms in his New York apartment. His family blames the government, and its overzealous prosecution, for Aaron’s death.

Rest in peace, Aaron Swartz. May his untimely and unfair passing serve as a wake-up call to the American people. Before someone is charged with decades in prison, there should at least be a victim, ill will, or some type of serious crime involved. Prisons are supposed to be a place where violent, terrible people are quarantined from society. They are not a place to house our greatest minds who are fighting to bring taxpayer-funded educational information to the public.

The late, great Aaron Swartz is our Rebel of the Week.

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About the Author: Barry Donegan

Barry Donegan is a singer for the experimental mathcore band Look What I Did, a writer, a self-described "veteran lifer in the counterculture", a political activist/consultant, and a believer in the non-aggression principle.