The suicide of famed programmer and free access advocate Aaron Swartz shocked the world. However, the underlying story of the how the Obama Administration prosecuted — and, in the eyes of many, persecuted — Swartz for seeking to publish academic papers which were later released by MIT without charge. Nevertheless, United States Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz and the Obama Administration relentlessly pursued Swartz and sought an absurd 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines before he took his own life. His family blames the Justice Department and Ortiz for his suicide. Swartz opposed the Administration’s fight against public access and particularly President Obama’s “Kill List.” The Swartz prosecution was widely criticized for months but the Obama Administration and Justice Department remained committed to putting him in jail.
Swartz was one of this country’s most extraordinary individuals. At age 14, he helped create RSS, the tool allowing people to subscribe to online information. He later was a founder of a company that merged with Reddit where we get many of our daily stories.
Swartz, 26, hanged himself and appears to have suffered from depression. Thus, the prosecution cannot be entirely attributed with his death. However, the Obama Administration hammered Swartz for months over his downloading of academic articles. Swartz has long been an advocate for public access to information. Like many of us, Swartz was critical of increasingly stringent laws balkanizing information in our society from works to words to even common images. He however took that crusade to extraordinary lengths.
In 2008, he took on PACER, or Public Access to Court Electronic Records, for its charging of 10 cents a page for documents. I agreed with Swartz about this charge as being a barrier to public access to our courts and important cases. He argued correctly that there should be free access. He co-founded Demand Progress to seek online access and fought for social reforms. The federal government, at the behest of industry groups, shutdown his free library program.
In 2011, Swartz took on JSTOR, the academic repository of papers and research. It is a subscription based service. He broke into the computer system at MIT through a utility closet using a laptop and a false identity. He downloaded 4.8 million documents. Notably, however, MIT chose not to pursue charges — to its credit. For many years, academics argued that such material should be free to the public as a matter of principle. Two days before Swartz’s death, MIT releases all documents publicly free of charge.
However, despite MIT’s position that it did not want to bring charges, Carmen M. Ortiz saw her chance. Ortiz is the United States Attorney for Massachusetts and a graduate of our law school who spoke recently at our commencement. Industry groups and lobbyists have long gotten what they wanted from Obama on criminalizing trademark and copyright violations. States have shown the same capture by industry groups. Swartz was a prime target as an advocate of public access and the Obama Administration threw everything that they had at him.
There is no question that Swartz crossed the line and broke into the system. However, given MIT’s position against charging Swartz, it would seem a case for prosecutorial discretion or a deal with Swartz. After all, students commit such acts regularly (though certainly not to the size of this download) without charges. Ortiz, however, sought decades in jail and ruinous fines to the great pleasure of the copyright hawks that run throughout the Administration. To the Administration, Swartz was just another felon who needed to be jailed for decades for his crime.
It is doubtful that the Administration will take any action to reduce the stranglehold on creativity and discussion by these laws. The Administration has brought in copyright hawks into the Administration and appointed them to the courts in a windfall for industry.
MIT has started an investigation into any role the school may have played in the prosecution by the Obama Administration. What is notable is that Swartz’s treatment at the hands of the Justice Department has caused outrage. However, thousands of average citizens have been ravaged by the Administration or industry law firms like the U.S. Copyright Group under these laws without attention or concern.
The abuse of Swartz speaks of industry capture of our government that has now claimed the life of one of the brightest of our country. He is the ultimate personification of how our copyright and trademark laws have been flipped on their head. Rather than protect creativity, they now stifle such creativity. We now have prosecutors and lawyers pursuing people like Swartz to prevent public access to information. His tragic image hanging in his apartment speaks to the dismal state of information control in this country. His was truly a beautiful mind and his death should galvanize his cause to empower citizens in their demand to breakdown the rising barriers to information in this country.
Source: NY Times