Which crime is worse: committing gross financial fraud in the pursuit of profit and completely destabilizing a major economy in the process, or downloading articles in an effort to make academic research freely available to the public?
Apparently the latter, if the overzealous prosecution of Aaron Swartz – computer programmer, Reddit co-founder, internet activist and recent suicide victim – is any indication.
In an era when the fraudsters and bankers of AIG, Goldman Sachs, HSBC and countless others receive prosecutorial immunity or are otherwise ignored, the U.S. Justice Department devoted massive amounts of time and energy toward bringing the hammer down on Swartz.
This shocking display of priorities suggests that the government considers the dissemination of knowledge a far greater crime than bringing down the economy through corruption and fraud.
Such irrationality allows dangerous financial criminals to continue to profit through illegal actions while discouraging protestors and reformers from fighting for necessary change.
On Jan. 6, 2011, federal authorities arrested Swartz after he allegedly broke into a controlled-access wiring closet at MIT. He used a laptop to download nearly 4.8 million articles and other documents from JSTOR, the non-profit distribution service for scholarly articles.
Two years later, Swartz was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment, having committed suicide. Family and supporters understandably attribute his death to mounting fiscal pressures relating to his trial and fear of spending time in prison.
“Aaron was forced by the government to spend every fiber of his being on this damnable, senseless trial,"his partner TarenStinebrickner-Kauffman said at the memorial, according to Rolling Stone.
At the time of his suicide, Swartz faced 13 felony charges and upwards of 50 years in prison for what amounted to “checking too many books out of the library,” as Dave Segal, executive director of Demand Progress and friend of Swartz, told the New York Times.
Many institutions – including MIT, where the alleged theft took place – pay for access to JSTOR which they then grant for free to their users. Swartz gained access to JSTOR due to his affiliation with Harvard, where he was a research fellow at the time of his arrest. He did not receive permission to perform a bulk download. Still, Swartz did nothing more than something he was legally allowed to do, simply faster.
In fact, the only entity with any real claim to harm in the whole affair – JSTOR itself – “had no interest in this becoming an ongoing legal matter,” according to a statement released by the organization. After his arrest, Swartz quickly complied with JSTOR, returning the hard drives with the ‘stolen’ articles and promising not to distribute any of them.
Initially, state prosecutors were uninterested in pursuing any jail time for what essentially amounted to civil disobedience, at worst. Middlesex County's district attorney sought to have Swartz “duly admonished and then returned to civil society to continue his pioneering electronic work in a less legally questionable manner," according to a report in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly.
Once the feds arrived, however, everything changed. Federal Prosecutor Carmen Ortiz took over and decided to use Swartz’s case to “send a message” according to the report.
This desire to “send a message” changed a single ‘trespassing at MIT’ misdemeanor charge into first four, then later a staggering 13 felony counts. What should have been a few months of probation quickly and unjustly became the possibility of spending upwards of 50 years behind bars.
This doesn’t even take into account the permanent status as a second-class citizen a felony conviction can create.
This affair was a clear attempt by the federal government to intimidate an activist with a long history of fighting for information freedom. Swartz had helped organize protests against the Stop Online Piracy Act, the overreaching legislation, which would have granted the government the ability to shut down websites at their discretion. He also vocally advocated for Wikileaks and Bradley Manning.
Few people have done more to challenge the United States’ archaic and unjust copyright laws.
In the light of its handling of banking affairs, the United States’ prosecution of Swartz is nothing short of a national disgrace. Despite the fact that British banking giant HSBC admitted to laundering billions of dollars for Mexican and Colombian drug cartels, they got away with no prosecution and a fine amounting to five weeks of their income.
Swartz, meanwhile, faced a harsher sentence for his principled civil disobedience than he would have had he been accused of selling child pornography, genocidal eugenics or helping al-Qaida develop a nuclear bomb. That’s an absurdly strong “message” to send.
The United States needs to focus more on protecting families from predatory bankers than ruining the lives of activists and dissenters.
The United States needs justice for Aaron Swartz.
-Matthew Kenyon is a senior history major from Marysville. He can be contacted at 335-2290 or by email@example.com. The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the staff of The Daily Evergreen or those of Student Publications.