May Aaron Swartz's memory live on

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Last month, I wrote about a series of overzealous prosecutions that are being waged against individuals accused of stealing information from IT systems. The defendants in these cases may have violated various laws, but their stated end goal was never to enrich themselves with money, but the world with data that they believed belonged in the public domain. Nevertheless, they are now facing dubious and excessive charges, the victims of a powerful government and corporate state that appears scared to death over losing their stranglehold on secrecy and profit.

I should have, but I didn't, include Aaron Swartz, who, prior to his suicide on Friday, was accused by federal prosecutors of using his access to MIT's network to steal millions of academic papers so they could be distributed for free. He faced 35 years behind bars. Swartz's family and girlfriend believe that the prospect of spending decades in prison is what pushed him over the edge.

We live in an age now, as former congressional staffer-turned-political writer and activist Matthew Stoller notes, when prodigies like Swartz are not embraced, but scorned, by the establishment, specifically, in this case, the U.S. attorney's office in Boston. It's a fundamental problem with no easy fix. And maybe no fix at all, depending on how deep of a hole we've dug ourselves.

Aaron is dead because the institutions that govern our society have decided that it is more important to target geniuses like Aaron than nurture them, because the values he sought – openness, justice, curiosity – are values these institutions now oppose. In previous generations, people like Aaron would have been treasured and recognized as the remarkable gifts they are. We do not live in a world like that today.

I never met Swartz. Like many people, I have learned more about the 26-year-old over the past two days than I had known prior. There have been a number of wonderfully poignant and equally thoughtful reflection posts that have been written on Swartz, including this and this.

I urge you to read those with the hope that the public can help spur and erect some mechanisms so this never happens again. A good start would be updating a comically outdated federal anti-hacking law that gives truculent prosecutors the means by which to "bully" defendants and force them to face decades in prison for alleged crimes that expert witnesses prefer to describe as "inconsiderate" actions.

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