On Friday, January 11, 2013, Aaron Swartz, a young technological whiz and social activist, committed suicide. This happened exactly two years to the day after his arrest by MIT Campus police for breaking into a wiring closet on the MIT Campus and downloading massive amounts of data from the pay-to-access JSTOR repository with the goal of making the information -- academic research -- freely available.
While his alleged actions were clearly illegal, unethical and misguided, his goal was high-minded and noble: to democratize academic knowledge and make it freely available, thereby spurring faster cycles of discovery, insight and innovation.
Swartz returned the stolen data to JSTOR rather than releasing it, and MIT/JSTOR opted not to press charges. However, U.S. Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz decided to aggressively prosecute Swartz with the full force of the Federal Government behind her. Furthermore, the prosecution was structured such that this creative young genius was being bankrupted in trying to mount his own defense, and was unable to utilize his own technological and networking resources to reach out to his supporters or the legions of internet users who his work has touched, for help. Backed into an impossible corner, Swartz felt he had no option but to take his own life.
This is important for several reasons:
1) Civil Disobedience is a cherished tradition in the United States. While it is appropriate for consequences to be applied, this particular case, where a young man's life was effectively destroyed, the persecution was excessive and abusive.
2) Swartz, founder of DemandProgress.org, was an outspoken human rights advocate, and frequent critic of governmental abuses of power. It's not unreasonable to wonder if there was not an ulterior motive behind Ortiz' aggressive persecution.
3) The United States is a society that claims to value liberty and democracy. When Swartz' effort to support and uphold those values crossed purposes with powerful financial interests, our government, and particularly Ortiz, abandoned our core principles to prosecute the action, despite the fact that MIT/JSTOR did not request they do so. While Ortiz' claim that "theft is theft, no matter what" is technically accurate, the manner in which she pursued this matter hints at the possible rise of tyranny, overtaking a once free and proud republic.
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