Even if you didn’t who Aaron Swartz was before his suicide the other day, you probably do now. A tech prodigy (co-developer of RSS code and the website Reddit) and thoughtful young activist who fought to fulfill the real potential of our communications revolution – who Lawrence Lessig called an “incredible soul” – Swartz was facing up to 35 years in jail and millions in fines for taking documents via MIT’s network from the non-profit JSTOR repository. JSTOR was willing to settle; it seems that MIT was not. Clearly the Department of Justice was determined to prosecute this case to the bitter end.
I didn’t know Aaron but have followed his work for years. Some of the tributes by those who knew him can be found at the Guardian site.
Whether or not Aaron’s suicide is directly attributable to the legal case against him is hard to say – I tend to think that it is is but we never truly know the source of the inner demons in someone else’s mind. The family feels strongly that the court case is to blame.
What is truly frightening in all of this is the disproportionality of our intellectual property and copyright law. Mind you, Aaron was facing far more time in jail than if he had gone out and shot someone, robbed a bank, trafficked slaves, or threatened the President. Think Progress has a summary of the time you face for these crimes – if we learn anything from Aaron’s tragic death, it should be that the fear (largely from the corporate world) of the incredible ability to share ideas and resources in the digital age has spurred to a profound overreaction to protect intellectual property. Whatever Aaron did – even if one does draw the conclusion that it was outright theft – it does not measure up to the following.
Here is some of the list from Think Progress:
To put these charges in perspective, here are ten examples of federal crimes that carry lesser prison sentences than Swartz’ alleged crime of downloading academic articles in an effort to make knowledge widely available to the public:
- Manslaughter: Federal law provides that someone who kills another human being “[u]pon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion” faces a maximum of 10 years in prison if subject to federal jurisdiction. The lesser crime of involuntary manslaughter carries a maximum sentence of only six years.
- Bank Robbery: A person who “by force and violence, or by intimidation” robs a bank faces a maximum prison sentence of 20 years. If the criminal “assaults any person, or puts in jeopardy the life of any person by the use of a dangerous weapon or device,” this sentence is upped to a maximum of 25 years.
- Selling Child Pornography: The maximum prison sentence for a first-time offender who “knowingly sells or possesses with intent to sell” child pornography in interstate commerce is 20 years. Significantly, the only way to produce child porn is to sexually molest a child, which means that such a criminal is literally profiting off of child rape or sexual abuse.
- Knowingly Spreading AIDS: A person who “after testing positive for the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and receiving actual notice of that fact, knowingly donates or sells, or knowingly attempts to donate or sell, blood, semen, tissues, organs, or other bodily fluids for use by another, except as determined necessary for medical research or testing” faces a maximum of 10 years in prison.
- Selling Slaves: Under federal law, a person who willfully sells another person “into any condition of involuntary servitude” faces a maximum prison sentence of 20 years, although the penalty can be much higher if the slaver’s actions involve kidnapping, sexual abuse or an attempt to kill.
- Genocidal Eugenics: A person who “imposes measures intended to prevent births” within a particular racial, ethnic or religious group or who “subjects the group to conditions of life that are intended to cause the physical destruction of the group in whole or in part” faces a maximum prison term of 20 years, provided their actions did not result in a death.
- Helping al-Qaeda Develop A Nuclear Weapon: A person who “willfully participates in or knowingly provides material support or resources . . . to a nuclear weapons program or other weapons of mass destruction program of a foreign terrorist power, or attempts or conspires to do so, shall be imprisoned for not more than 20 years.”
- Violence At International Airports: Someone who uses a weapon to “perform an act of violence against a person at an airport serving international civil aviation that causes or is likely to cause serious bodily injury” faces a maximum prison sentence of 20 years if their actions do not result in a death. . . .
May his passing help us rethink our priorities and ensure that the Internet is a place of freedom.