The suicide of computer genius Aaron Swartz makes him a martyr to the cause of freedom of information on the internet and casts the US government as the villain.
Swartz was the influential computer programmer who had a hand in creating the script for RSS and is most popularly known as one of the founders of trendy social news site Reddit.
Perhaps more importantly than that, Swartz was a champion of freedom of information. In 2010 he went to MIT and put a laptop in a janitor closet, connected it to their network, and downloaded millions of scholarly articles from the repository known as JSTOR.
He was apprehended in early 2011 and charged with breaking and entering. JSTOR went on record as saying that it did not want to press any charges against Swartz, but the government had a different agenda.
The U.S. attorneys came down hard and swiftly on Swartz charging him with wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer and recklessly damaging a protected computer.
These charges carried a maximum prison sentence of 50 years, and fines up to $5 million. All of this for trying to make public articles in journals that were funded by American tax dollars in the first place.
The government wanted to make an example out of Swartz.
Consider how long a sentence Swartz faced. Now consider the maximum fines of the following: threatening the president (5 years), knowingly spreading aids (10 years) , selling child pornography (20 years), armed robbery (25 years), helping terrorists develop a nuclear weapon 20 years).
It’s true Swartz’s maximum penalty included several counts of each charge, but at most he was guilty of infringing on copyright laws, or breaching the terms of service with JSTOR. Should he be punished more harshly than a child porn distributor or an armed robber? Absolutely not.
This egregious misuse of justice has to open up a dialogue within society about how these types of ‘crimes’ are handled.
More than that there needs to be a serious discussion about how corporations like JSTOR and PACER charge such high fees to access public documents.
JSTOR bills itself as not-for-profit on its website, but anyone outside of academic institutions pays a hefty price to access content. A simple download can cost anywhere from $10 to $30, and often the user has a restricted time limit for using the article.
The academics who wrote the articles do not receive payments from JSTOR, so where is the money going? Taxpayers shouldn’t have to scale paywalls to get content they paid for in the first place.
If not opposed, the government will continue to put profits over public access to information. This not only hurts the citizens, but also puts into question just how free, progressive, and democratic we really are.
Should Aaron Swartz have been punished for what he did? Probably. At the end of the day, JSTOR had clearly defined terms of service that he breached. A small fine and a slap on the wrist would have sufficed. The witch-hunt that occurred instead was nothing short of despicable.
The issue of freedom of information must now be brought to the forefront of global academics. Those seeking an education must not be stifled by an inability to access documents that may be requisite in their studies.
It is time to take a page out of Aaron Swartz’s book and start fighting for Internet freedom; let the government know that their scare tactics will not deter the masses from being given what is rightfully theirs.