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The Urge to Punish – Aaron Swartz, RIP

Aaron Swartz committed suicide this past weekend. I did not know Aaron Swartz. You probably did not know Aaron Swartz. But we’ve all benefited from his brilliant mind. When Aaron was 14, he developed the protocol called Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary (RSS), which is used by individuals and companies throughout the web to distribute new content.

He helped found Reddit, which is today one of the most highly trafficked websites on the internet. He founded DemandProgress, an organization instrumental in helping to defeat an awful piece of legislation called SOPA that would’ve given the government power to blacklist certain websites.

Aaron was an activist who, when he saw injustice, took steps to stop it. Believing that PACER, the government’s system of electronically distributing otherwise free court records for a fee was unjust, he helped liberate millions of records causing the FBI to investigate him. That investigation turned up nothing criminal.

In 2008, Aaron decided that JSTOR, an extremely expensive online subscription service designed to distribute academic articles published in journals, should be free as well. He logged onto MIT’s network and downloaded millions of otherwise free journal articles to which he had legal access. He had planned to make these available free on the web, but never did so.

The federal prosecutor in Massachusetts decided to prosecute him. Perhaps Aaron was guilty of trespassing – for having placed his computer in a networking closet at MIT to download these articles – but the federal prosecutor decided she would throw the book at Aaron. He was indicted on 13 felony counts that could’ve landed him in prison for 35 years and resulted in fines of $1 million.

Aaron had long suffered from depression. But the decision to prosecute him – to threaten to put him in jail for 35 years for what was an act of civil disobedience – surely contributed to his state of mind.

His parents write:

Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.

As Larry Lessig writes:

In that world, the question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a “felon.” For in the 18 months of negotiations, that was what he was not willing to accept, and so that was the reason he was facing a million-dollar trial in April — his wealth bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge. And so as wrong and misguided and f***ing sad as this is, I get how the prospect of this fight, defenseless, made it make sense to this brilliant but troubled boy to end it.

Fifty years in jail, charges our government. Somehow, we need to get beyond the “I’m right so I’m right to nuke you” ethics that dominates our time. That begins with one word: shame.



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