Aaron Swartz was prosecuted for a crime that not only would he have been justified in committing, but also that he did not actually commit. Furthermore, the Justice Department knew that Swartz was no criminal, yet it decided to press charges anyway in order to serve its own sinister motives. That he was prosecuted at all demonstrates disturbing trends in the United States legal system and the nation as a whole.
Before the discussion of this topic can continue, one important point must be established; Aaron Swartz, the ‘notorious hacktivist,’ hacked neither MIT nor JSTOR and committed no actual crimes. As a Harvard Research Fellow, Swartz was given fully legal access to MIT’s computer network and its collection of digital libraries, of which JSTOR was one. Swartz’s privileges included permission to download academic journals, which he did en-masse through the use of an auto-downloader. Neither auto-downloading nor mass downloading were banned by the JSTOR terms of service, nor were there any safeguards in place to prevent it. The reason JSTOR was concerned when it discovered the mass-downloading was both because it feared that competitors might be collecting the data for their own commercial use, and the massive amounts of bandwidth Swartz was using for said mass-downloading. However, what was taking place was still not a crime, much less a felony. A more apt comparison would be checking too many books out of a local library.
As it turned out, JSTOR and MIT seemed to agree with the sentiment that Swartz’ was not a criminal, as neither opted to press charges after he was caught and the full circumstances brought to light. Swartz had certainly not harmed either of them; the worst consequences they had suffered were JSTOR experiencing a high traffic load and MIT being temporarily blocked from JSTOR’s database. JSTOR repeatedly said that its only interest was in retrieving the articles that Swartz had downloaded, and MIT insisted that it had no stance whatsoever on the matter.
Regardless, the federal government opted to proceed forward with its own charges against the young researcher. Why it chose to do so is a matter that deserves intense scrutiny, as this was certainly not a matter of national security. Though Swartz had often spoken in favor of open access to scholarly journals and research papers, none of what he had downloaded from JSTOR could have been considered compromising to the United States, even if it had been shared with the world. In fact, there is a strong argument to be made that if the articles had been leaked then the American public would have benefited from the increased access to knowledge. Typically, those not fortunate enough to be studying at a university will simply have no means by which to access the millions of academic journals and research papers that digital library corporations horde behind steep paywalls. Not only does this act as a hindrance on education and innovation overall, but it also is actually closer to theft than anything Swartz was doing. Much of the research and analysis conducted in scholarly journals has been and continues to be paid for with public funds and tax revenue, before being subsequently gated-off from the people whom it was meant to benefit. So clearly, Swartz was committing no great crime against the American people, even ignoring that what he did was not actually illegal.
Why then was the justice system so persistent in prosecuting Swartz as a felon when it was clear that he posed no danger to either the United States or its people, much less a violent threat? The answer is most likely in order to discourage the hacktivist community. At the time, the United States was still reeling from the release of thousands of classified documents on WikiLeaks and the subsequent controversy, as numerous incidents of gross misconduct on the part of the federal government came to light. Such incidents brought hacktivism into the national limelight, and the justice system responded by shifting its focus to combatting this “threat to national security.” Swartz himself was a near perfect candidate to be the face of the hacktivist movement. Not only was he an outspoken supporter of WikiLeaks and other internet-based whistleblowers, but he had personally organized much of the public opposition to the draconian SOPA and PIPA bills, instantly becoming labeled as a troublemaker for Washington. Thus, the federal government decided to make an example of Swartz, for the self-stated purpose of sending a message.
In this, the United States not only failed to uphold its own ideals by prosecuting an innocent man, but it also exposed its own hypocrisy to the world. We live in a day and age where it’s an accepted fact that the NSA, FBI, and CIA frequently engage in illegal activities via the internet. Unauthorized wiretaps, website tracking, and hacking, are just a few commonly employed methods by which the alphabet agencies purport to keep us safe. Not only are all three practices extremely illegal, they are certainly more illegal than the downloading of scholarly journals. Yet even as it was considered acceptable for the NSA to eavesdrop on the American people for the greater good, Swartz overusing a digital library for the same stated goal somehow made him a dangerous criminal. There is a special kind of irony in a justice system that chooses to ignore very real cybercrime in order to make an example of an innocent man.
Fortunately, the scheme to make Swartz into a cautionary tale was ultimately unsuccessful. The public reaction to the tragedy of Swartz’s suicide has been overwhelming criticism of his treatment and the federal government in general, leading to petitions to have the chief prosecutor fired, as well as numerous protest hackings of both United States and MIT computer systems, which ironically have done far more damage to MIT than Swartz ever did. Conversely, both hacktivism and leaking seem to be on the rise. Recent examples include the inception of Project Ferguson, and the leaking of NSA surveillance documents by Edward Snowden. If anything, the injustice of Swartz’ treatment has led to him becoming a martyr for the internet community, the recently proposed Aaron’s Law amendment being named in his honor.
However, though Swartz’s name has become synonymous with the cause of internet freedom, it is important to remember that he was victim of a justice system with flaws that extend well beyond the limits of the internet. Aaron was imprisoned and eventually driven to suicide because he was charged with illegal hacking that never took place, because he wished to publicize information that should have been freely available, and because the Justice Department thought it acceptable to punish an innocent man as a warning to others. None of this speaks of a healthy legal system, and only serves to cast doubt on the ability of the United States to live up to its lofty ideals. It falls to those of this generation to take whatever actions are necessary in order to ensure that such willful breaches of justice and morality are no longer perpetrated, whether the solution be revising the laws and the severity with which they enforced, or reforming the agencies to whom we entrust our safety .