Monday, January 14, 2013

Aaron Swartz tragedy: What happens when prosecutors turn into bullies

The tragic conclusion of the life of 26-year-old free-speech activist Aaron Swartz has led to comments about prosecutors bullying defendants in going after venial “crimes”.

Lawrence Lessig told CNN today that there is a huge difference between “hacking” social security numbers, and “illegally” downloading documents from a non-profit that were probably going to be viewed free anyway.

Democracy Now” offers this perspective from Dr. Lessig.

Petterico reports Swartz’s attorney as saying that prosecutors’ arguments were “contrived”, here. "Prosecution" is not supposed to be the same as "persecution".  

Tim Lee (who writes for ArsTechnica, Forbes, and the Cato Institute   (sometimes about the intricacy of copyright law and DMCA abuse) – I met him when he was a student at the University of Minnesota when I was living in Minneapolis) offers this perspective on the “Wonkblog” on the Washington Post, “American Hero”, link here

Does it indeed take the willingness to skirt the law to innovate?  Probably so.  I’m reminded of another observation, seemingly distant, from libertarian author Charles Murray (also in our general geographical area, far exurban Maryland)   that “social capital” is absolutely necessary for sustainability, but it comes at a price of conformity and stifling innovation.

Prosecutors say they need to “make examples”.  It’s pretty easy to see overreaching of law enforcement in other areas of law enforcement.  For example, in Arlington VA, a young woman was arrested in 2007 in a Regal Cinema for camcording a few seconds from “Transformers”  (Movies blog, Aug. 3, 2007).  I don’t know whether the charges stuck. 


Later Monday, at 7:30 PM EST, Tim Lee, Lawrence Lessig and Maria Bustillos appeared live on Al Jazeera.  All of them discussed the supposed "offense" that Swartz "committed" at Pacer, downloading JSTOR documents.  Apparently the property owner did not want to prosecute.  There is some sense that the prosecution is based on an overreaching interpretation of a vaguely worded law from the 1980s.  The government is trying to make violations of "terms of service" of a private service a prosecutable offense (like a criminal trespass).  The charges could have led to a maximum of 35 years in prison and $1 million fines, and Swartz's resources had been drained by fighting what seemed like a frivolous prosecution that might have been dismissed or overturned on appeal. 

Swartz was a leader in the opposition to SOPA during the winter of 2011-2012 and had helped organize the one day boycott that encouraged Congress to drop the law.  

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