Internet Pioneer and Activist Aaron Swartz Takes Own Life at Age 26

Aaron Swartz

Last Friday, Aaron Swartz was found dead in his apartment in Brooklyn, after hanging himself. Swartz’ death is deeply saddening on many levels, most of all because he’s the last kind of person the world needs to lose. As a teenager, Swartz was integral to the creation of RSS, which has since become a vital part of the Web for anyone interested in finding and reading content regularly. Innovations in technology have come quickly in the past decades, but the innovators who give us truly useful and enriching tools – things that don’t have to do with baubles like convenience or entertainment – are far too few to lose.

Swartz went on to co-found Reddit, which encapsulates the Internet itself – humanity, with unprecedented interconnectivity. Sometimes, that’s not always a good thing – malicious trolls and subreddits of unseemly people aren’t hard to find – but the benefits of Reddit can’t be ignored. It can be a repository of knowledge, and a dive through a subreddit dedicated to any given academic topic can be an amazingly enriching experience. It brings out the best and worst of the human race, then amplifies the output. Swartz helped make that possible, for better or worse.

Swartz, later in his life, was dedicated to his idea of freedom of information on the Internet. He co-founded Demand Progress, an organization critical to disseminating information about and ultimately defeating the wrongheaded SOPA. He was also partially responsible for Creative Commons, a vital tool for allowing academicians and content creators to have control over what work is made available for public use, something that Wikipedia thrives on. However, his activism wasn’t without controversy. At the time of his death, Swartz was facing trial for a number of charges related to hacking. The charges stemmed from Swartz using MIT’s wireless network to access JSTOR, with the intention of downloading JSTOR articles normally behind paywalls and distributing them online for free.

What Swartz did likely wasn’t completely legal – the steps he took to use a utility closet to hide the laptop responsible for downloading the files was maybe in a legal grey area. That said, there’s an excellent post on i09 written by someone who was to serve as an expert witness during the trial, which details why most of the charges against Swartz were almost wholly fraudulent – in short, MIT’s wireless network is open to use for guests without restrictions, and those who use it to download JSTOR articles for free are under no legal limitations and are not held to any terms of service (essentially, no hacking took place). The post explains it better than I’d be able to.

What I’d like to look at a little more is a number. That number is 35. That’s the number of years Swartz could have potentially served in prison, had he been convicted of all counts. Given the facts of the case, it’s extremely unlikely that Swartz would have spent 35 years in prison as a result of this trial. Prosecutors were seeking a sentence of at least seven years – excessive in its own right, and seven was at the very least. I’m not going to say Swartz broke no laws, because I don’t know enough about the case. What I do know is that if a seven-year prison sentence is being sought, or if a 35-year prison sentence is even coming into the conversation when talking about Swartz, this country has a serious problem with crime and technology in the 21st century.

Why do we have prisons? There are a few possible answers to that question. The most obvious, and probably the most important reason, is to protect the public from individuals who, for whatever reason, cannot be trusted to interact with society responsibly – individuals who present a clear and present danger to the safety, health, and well-being of the concerned public. Some will say prisons are for punishment, others will claim they’re for deterrence. Punishment’s all fine and good, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of social value. The latter is not as effective as we’d like to imagine – after all, few criminals do what they do expecting to get caught. It’s certainly a deterrent to some extent, but not exactly the greatest one. You could say rehabilitation, but you’re not going to find much hard evidence to support that claim. Regardless, when we’re talking 35 years in a prison, we’re well past the idea of rehabilitation.

Taking all that into account, the question begs to be asked and answered – who wins if a man like Aaron Swartz goes to prison for 35 years, or even seven? Swartz was out for the dissemination of information to the public. Were his methods completely legal? Probably not. Was he in the right, morally and ethically? That can be debated. But was this a man who presented a clear and present danger to the safety, health, and well-being of the public? Who, exactly, was Swartz threatening? Perhaps JSTOR, except JSTOR had the option to press charges and chose not to. If Swartz isn’t threatening anyone, why put him in a prison that is probably already overcrowded to begin with? Who wins? There are only losers – Swartz loses most of the rest of his life, and the world loses a brilliant man who would otherwise continue to create and innovate, making a bigger impact on the world than most ever aspire to make. Why deprive the world of that? What’s the point in prosecuting this man so aggressively?

Separating intent from crime is a difficult and very dangerous matter to undertake. It creates legal grey areas, and those aren’t easy to deal with on a case by case basis. But, when our current laws regarding the Internet and “hacking” force us to lump people like Swartz in with scammers and identity thieves – actual threats – that gray area must be preferable to the injustices that would be perpetuated in the name of the state otherwise. Justice without attention paid to intent is madness. A death is a tragedy regardless, but there’s a reason why our laws distinguish murder from manslaughter – intent, and the potential danger the defendant poses in light of that intent. It’s time the Internet received the same kind of responsible, sensible, nuanced approach from our lawmakers and courts.

I don’t know whether or not Swartz deserved to be punished for his crimes. I don’t even know whether or not he was guilty of any crimes to begin with. But we all have to know that if someone was trying to put Swartz away for 35 years, or even seven years, something somewhere has gone terribly wrong. This all didn’t need to happen, surely.

But, some prosecutors felt the need to press the issue, and now the gifts Swartz had left to give will go with him to the grave.

Who wins?

Source: Yahoo! News