From left to right: Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Aaron Swartz

Today I want to tell you three American stories.

The first story is about one of the most celebrated American entrepreneurs of all time – Steve Jobs.

When Jobs was a young adult he and his friend Steve Wozniak started a business centered around an innovative piece of technology. This piece of technology was called a Blue Box. A Blue Box is a device that allows a user to hack phone networks to materially benefit by making free long distance phone calls. Jobs and Wozniak not only used the device themselves – hacking a phone network and making free calls to the Vatican on at least one occasion – they ran a criminal enterprise making and selling the device where they profited by helping others gain access to the illegal service.

Their experience from their Blue Box business both in managing operations and manufacturing electronics would prove useful as they started another business a short time later called Apple Computer, now Apple Inc. Apple would go on to change the world igniting the personal computer revolution and later influence the music, telecom, and entertainment industry by introducing popular MP3 players, smart phones, and tablet computers.

Upon Jobs’ death he was revered as one of America’s greatest businessmen and it all started with the Blue Box.

The second story is about one of the most successful entrepreneurs of the moment – Mark Zuckerberg.

When Zuckerberg was a young adult he and his friend Dustin Moskovitz launched a social networking project that became famous. The social networking project was called Facemash. Facemash was a service that allowed users to rate the attractiveness of women at Harvard using photos and information that was illegally accessed when Zuckerberg hacked Harvard’s network. Zuckerberg detailed his illegal hacking in real time on a LiveJournal blog. Zuckerberg and Moskovitz not only used the service, they sent links to many of their friends.

Their experience with their Facemash project both in managing information and building a social network would prove useful as they started another project a short time later called thefacebook.com, now Facebook Inc. Facebook would go on to change the world becoming the largest online social network ever and later influence the gaming, telecom, and music industry by introducing through its platform popular web games, mobile applications, and music sharing services.

Upon Zuckerberg’s success with his company he became revered as one of America’s most innovative businessmen and it all started with Facemash.

The third story is about a now deceased defendant in a computer hacking case – Aaron Swartz.

When Swartz was a young adult he used his hacking skills to publish information in remarkable ways. The product of these information publishing skills was called Infogami, later reddit. reddit is a social news and entertainment website that allows users to submit content and rate content provided by other users. It helped change the world by allowing news and entertainment to be democratized and widely disseminated based on the interests of common people rather than elites.

Swartz’s experience with reddit both in valuing communities and promoting access to information would prove destructive as later he downloaded too many articles from JSTOR possibly with the intention of distributing them to the common people. JSTOR’s collection of articles, most of which are based on publicly funded research, were free and in the process of being organized into a proper system for universal access. But that didn’t stop federal prosecutors from charging Swartz with major felonies that ruined him financially and would have imprisoned him for decades.

Upon Swartz’s death he was mocked by the spouse of the prosecutor who destroyed him.

Three stories, different yet the same. All about important American tech innovators who broke the law. In Jobs’ case running a business that profited by denying phone companies revenue from long distance phone calls. In Zuckerberg and Swartz’s case violating the security rules of a university’s computer system in Massachusetts. All broke the law yet only one faced an unremitting campaign of personal destruction. Why? How was Swartz different?

Jobs was notorious for his lack of civic engagement not even bothering with the standard CEO photo op philanthropy. He absurdly asserted his products were his great contribution to humanity no other offering was necessary - child slave workers notwithstanding.

On the other hand, Zuckerberg has diligently worked to ingratiate himself with the powers that be – forging relationships with media barons, funding right-wing political projects, and now diving head first into partisan politics. Zuckerberg is playing the game and winning.

But Swartz did not want to play the game, at least not that game and unlike Jobs he did believe in participating in civil society. Yet Swartz’s beliefs in an open society and open information also put him beyond the myopic Silicon Valley policy agenda of more STEM education and easier work visas for foreign engineers. So after cashing out at reddit he chose to dedicate himself to a life of strong progressive activism outside the limited option of promoting entrepreneurship the go to issue for those in the tech community who want to be involved in politics but not be political.

Swartz helped lead an insurgency inside the Democratic Party, founding the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Demand Progress. He then took a leading role in fighting back against an attempt to control the internet by the entertainment and defense industries called the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and won. Contrary to MPAA spin, the major tech companies like Google and Facebook did not lead the opposition against SOPA, in fact, they wanted a compromise bill that would help settle legal ambiguities in their businesses. For the big Silicon Valley firms SOPA was an opportunity, they hoped to use the opposition to the bill as leverage to get some goodies of their own. It was the activists who stopped it – Swartz might as well have painted a target on his back.

So when Swartz committed his “crime” – unlike in the Jobs and Zuckerberg cases – the State took an interest. A US Attorney looking to make a name for herself – surely encouraged by some of Swartz’s enemies – went for the jugular. She put up 30 years and a million dollar fine as her opening offer but the ultimate goal for Swartz’s foes was to take Swartz out of politics. A felony conviction would see to that. Not only would it limit his political activity it would destroy his credibility so the next time Swartz wanted to launch an insurgent campaign against an elite power grab he could be dismissed – felon, criminal, loser.

Swartz is dead now but a question remains for all of us at the end of the story. What is really against the law in America – hacking or activism?

Photos by Mathew Yohe, Gulliaume Paumier, and Aaron Swartz respectively, under Creative Commons license.