In a country full of stupid laws – written by corrupt politicians, refined by maniacal bureaucrats, and enforced by ruthless careerists – few are stupider than the current version of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. On the surface it seems sensible, first passed in 1986 as a basic legal protection against unauthorized access of federal or major corporate computer systems the law has since expanded (with particular help from the PATRIOT Act) into an amorphous blob of contradictions that is only temporally congealed into a semblance of rational jurisprudence to offer a pretext for selective prosecutions. In short, the law has become a favorite club of the state to beat political dissidents with and so it is that in enforcing this asinine law a luminary of the internet has been hounded into an early grave.
Aaron Swartz was an American success story. A talented kid he worked on developing the RSS feed when he was 14. Swartz latter became – what every sanctimonious politician of both parties proclaim is the ultimate achievement – an entrepreneur, founding Infogami which would later merge with reddit in 2006. In 2007 Swartz left reddit and became a fellow at Harvard University’s Center for Ethics while also founding Demand Progress a progressive activist group focused primarily on online organizing. Perhaps Swartz’s most famous activism was his role in helping to stop the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).
In 2011 Swartz was charged under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act with wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer. The crime? Downloading academic journals from not-for profit JSTOR on a guest account without permission. JSTOR would later provide free access claiming it already had a program in the works when Swartz committed his crime. In other words, Aaron Swartz did to JSTOR what Mark Zuckerberg did to Harvard’s Facebook – gained unauthorized access to data which lead to offering a service the university said it was already working on. And in the state of Massachusetts no less!
Like Harvard with Zuckerberg, JSTOR was able to settle the issue with Swartz outside of a court room. Unlike with Zuckerberg, the US Attorney for Massachusetts pursued criminal charges which meant Swartz faced up to 35 years in prison and a million dollar fine. Maybe if Zuckerberg had been a political activist…
On Friday January 11th Swartz was found dead in his apartment. The cause of death is believed to be suicide, with a family member confirming death by hanging. Quinn Norton, a close friend of Swartz, said of the trial “it pushed him to exhaustion. It pushed him beyond.” Though reports also note Swartz had a history of depression there is little doubt that the added stress of a possible 35 years imprisonment and a million dollar fine surely worsened any preexisting mental health condition. Would you like to do 35 years in an American federal prison?
So here we are. A talented, passionate, and civic minded young man is dead at 26, destroyed by state power. But instead of focusing on what he lost, perhaps it is time to think about what we lost and what we will lose if this behavior by the government continues. Do we have so many people like Aaron Swartz to lose, to throw to the wolves of the police state? And does such a meal even satiate those vile dogs or does it merely wet their appetite? A key proponent of a free and open internet has been destroyed by the grinding terror of the federal government’s justice system. Not just a victim, but an example to terrify other activists into silence.
Let us hope those witnessing this story take lessons from the courage of Swartz’s life of activism and not the tragic nature of his demise.
Photo by Fred Benenson under Creative Commons license