Aaron Swartz committed suicide. Now what?

Aaron Swartz committed suicide last week.  Now what?

EFF suggests working towards fixing the “draconian computer crime law”.

Aaron was one of our community’s best and brightest, and he achieved great things in his short life. He was a coder, a political activist, an entrepreneur, a contributor to major technological developments (like RSS), and an all-around Internet freedom rock star. As Wired noted, the world will miss out on decades of magnificent things Aaron would have accomplished had his time not been cut short.

Over the past two years, Aaron was forced to devote much of his energy and resources to fighting a relentless and unjust felony prosecution brought by Justice Department attorneys in Massachusetts. His alleged crimes stemmed from using MIT’s computer network to download millions of academic articles from the online archive JSTOR, allegedly without “authorization.” For that, he faced 13 felony counts of hacking and wire fraud (pdf), which carried the possibility of decades in prison and crippling fines. His case would have gone to trial in April.

The government should never have thrown the book at Aaron for accessing MIT’s network and downloading scholarly research. However, some extremely problematic elements of the law made it possible.  We can trace some of those issues to the U.S. criminal justice system as an institution, and I suspect others will write about that in the coming days. But Aaron’s tragedy also shines a spotlight on a couple profound flaws of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act in particular, and gives us an opportunity to think about how to address them.

If the current law is not addressed, it will continue to be abused and used by government authorities and those in powerful positions to stomp out internet freedom and control the free flow of information.

Glenn Greenwald, who has been following Aaron’s case, wrote the following.

To say that the DOJ’s treatment of Swartz was excessive and vindictive is an extreme understatement. When I wrote about Swartz’s plight last August, I wrote that he was “being prosecuted by the DOJ with obscene over-zealousness”. Timothy Lee wrote the definitive article in 2011 explaining why, even if all the allegations in the indictment are true, the only real crime committed by Swartz was basic trespassing, for which people are punished, at most, with 30 days in jail and a $100 fine, about which Lee wrote: “That seems about right: if he’s going to serve prison time, it should be measured in days rather than years.”

Nobody knows for sure why federal prosecutors decided to pursue Swartz so vindictively, as though he had committed some sort of major crime that deserved many years in prison and financial ruin. Some theorized that the DOJ hated him for his serial activism and civil disobedience. Others speculated that, as Doctorow put it, “the feds were chasing down all the Cambridge hackers who had any connection to Bradley Manning in the hopes of turning one of them.”

I believe it has more to do with what I told the New York Times’ Noam Cohen for an article he wrote on Swartz’s case. Swartz’s activism, I argued, was waged as part of one of the most vigorously contested battles – namely, the war over how the internet is used and who controls the information that flows on it – and that was his real crime in the eyes of the US government: challenging its authority and those of corporate factions to maintain a stranglehold on that information. In that above-referenced speech on SOPA, Swartz discussed the grave dangers to internet freedom and free expression and assembly posed by the government’s efforts to control the internet with expansive interpretations of copyright law and other weapons to limit access to information.

Here is Aaron’s story about the citizen fight against SOPA.  Pay close attention to Aaron’s words as he describes who was behind the SOPA effort, why they were behind the SOPA effort, and who was truly responsible for stopping SOPA…. at least, stopping it for now.  Please pay close attention to Aaron’s words as he explains how those who stopped SOPA did so…. and you will understand why those in power will exploit every opportunity, every regulation, and every law to prevent a replay of what Aaron describes in his address.  The obstacle to their continued pursuit of power and control is an informed citizenry.  If they can control the information, then they can control “the masses”.  Don’t let them do that.

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