Large swaths of the Internet are in mourning for Aaron Swartz, the 26-year-old hacktavist who took his own life last week. I didn’t know Aaron and didn’t know much about him besides the thumbnail sketch that has now been repeated thousands of times across the Web. But it’s a heck of a thumbnail.
At age 14 Swartz invented Really Simple Syndication (RSS), which revolutionized how blogs were distributed and consumed. As a Stanford undergrad he started Infogami, a wiki platform that was later absorbed into Reddit – and made him independently wealthy when Reddit was bought by Conde Nast in 2006. Swartz helped to develop the Creative Commons standard that governs copyright and fair use for millions of Web sites. More recently he had been attempting to bring the “information wants to be free” ethos into reality, breaking into closed systems of information and trying to open them to the public.
On Friday evening Swartz hanged himself in his New York apartment with his own belt, leaving no note. His death has been attributed to the combination of a lifelong battle with depression and Swartz’s realization that he would soon have to do prison time for a crime he committed as an act of hacktavism.
In September 2010, Swartz entered an unlocked server closet at MIT, connected his laptop, and began downloading millions of files from JSTOR, a fee-based trove of academic papers. For that crime he was facing up to 35 years of federal prison time at the time of his death. This is despite the fact that Swartz returned the files and JSTOR opted to drop charges against him in June 2011.
MIT and federal prosecutors apparently decided to make an example of Swartz. Well, they got their example.
The more I read about this, the angrier I become. Lawrence Lessig, the Harvard Law professor who was both friend and advisor to Swartz, sums up the outrage rather nicely:
Here is where we need a better sense of justice, and shame. For the outrageousness in this story is not just Aaron. It is also the absurdity of the prosecutor’s behavior. From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. The "property" Aaron had "stolen," we were told, was worth "millions of dollars" — with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime. But anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar. It was clear what this was not, yet our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed.
True, Manning’s leak of 250,000 government cables to WikiLeaks – and WikiLeaks’ ham-fisted handling of those files, resulting in unredacted copies spilling out onto the Internet – probably caused real harm to real people. Still, it’s hard for anyone to justify what happened next: Being held for three years without trial in conditions similar to those at Guantanamo Bay.
But what harm has the Stratfor email leak ultimately caused? Who has been damaged by the downloads from JSTOR?
This not unlike the well-documented differences in sentencing for cocaine in its powder and crystalline forms. Despite recent reforms, possessing a small amount of crack can still earn you a much more severe prison sentence than the equivalent amount of powder, and we all know why that is.
Here instead of a racial divide there’s a cultural one, with the forces of law and government on one side, and the geeks on the other. Yes, government has its own troves of geeks, but they’re generally not the ones writing laws or making policy. By and large, those who are creating legislation and turning the creaky wheels of justice not only don’t understand technology, they’re afraid of it. These are not crimes they or their well-connected cronies would ever commit; who cares what happens to those who do?
So when a massive international bank is found to be laundering money for terrorists and drug cartels, it gets a hefty fine, which is of course paid by its customers and shareholders. No executive gets to wear an orange jumpsuit. Nobody at HSBC is looking at doing 35 minutes in jail let alone 35 years, not even in one of those Club Fed prisons where bad rich white men who got caught are forced to play tennis. They don’t even lose their country club memberships or the keys to the Lexus.
But when a skinny kid with a laptop downloads papers nobody other than a few miserable PhD candidates will ever read, the feds bring out the big guns. What’s wrong with this picture? Everything.
By the way, two days before Swartz killed himself JSTOR made its archives available to the public, free of charge. That stolen property the government says is worth “millions”? Apparently worth a good deal less.
So JSTOR finally agreed with Swartz: Information wants to be free. So do we, the people. But our government apparently has other ideas.
This post originally appeared on InfoWorld.