Of crime and punishment

I read with keen interest the other day an article pointing out crimes that result in lighter sentences and fewer years behind bars than those with which Aaron Swartz was being charged. 

In Ian Millhiser's article on AlterNet, “10 awful crimes that get you less prison time than what Aaron Swartz faced,” some of the misdeeds cited include human slave trafficking (20 years maximum), helping al-Qaeda develop a nuclear weapon (20 years max), selling child porn (20 years max), murdering in the heat of passion (10 years max) and other dicey  offenses. 

As many of you already know, Swartz, a well-known activist for open access, copyright reform and internet transparency, committed suicide Jan. 11 in New York. Already numerous powerful tributes have been written about this 26-year-old's genius and the curiosity that propelled it. 

The machinations of his case have been covered by various news outlets since about 2009, but to briefly review: The U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts charged Swartz in July 2011 with wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer and other acts related to his allegedly connecting a laptop to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's network to allegedly access millions of academic articles illegally from JSTOR, a digital library for which a subscription is required to check out academic journals, books and more. A 2011 federal grand jury indictment against Swartz was to lead to a trial that would have considered some 13 counts of computer fraud against him (including one that alleged his intent to make these documents available on file-sharing sites) and could have resulted in his paying millions of dollars in fines and receiving up to 35 years in prison. 

Ironically, a short while before his death, JSTOR announced that it would make some 4.5 million articles available to the public for free, limiting this offer to three, read-only articles every two weeks. A fee would be required for download. As well, according to the Los Angeles Times, an attorney for Swartz said that prosecutors told him a couple days before he killed himself that to avoid a trial he'd have to plead guilty to all 13 charges and spend at least six months in prison. 

One cannot ignore the extreme prosecutorial pressures he was under that almost certainly contributed to his suicide.”

– Illena Armstrong, VP, editorial, SC Magazine

Likely given the widespread outrage and sadness over Swartz's suicide, federal prosecutors recently dropped the charges against him – this despite the unremitting pursuit of them when he breathed air. Swartz's family frames the case as “prosecutorial overreach,” leveling a force so potent that it played a direct role in an unjustly persecuted man's hanging himself. Many in the IT industry described it, also, as a duel between those looking to uphold internet freedom and a controlling government often indebted to commercial interests. For me, it symbolizes yet another example of a nation going mad. 

After all my time covering this industry for SC Magazine, I never got the opportunity to meet Aaron Swartz, a member of the team which built an early version of Reddit and the RSS protocol.  Still, like many others who knew of his achievements, activism and the infamous federal case against him, I was dismayed and disturbed by his suicide, which only added to well-rooted revulsion for the relentlessness of legal actions against him. The AlterNet article only provided yet another truss to buttress thoughts of how unjust our legal system and, ultimately, our federal government can be. 

I don't argue that Swartz may have been guilty of some illegal acts (even though a few in the industry, given how arguably innocuous these were, have likened the charges against him to checking out too many library books) and probably should have received some form of punishment. What I'm offended by is the gross eagerness with which prosecutors pursued a case based on countless harsh charges that could have resulted in their apparent objective of levying the most extreme and ferocious penalties. 

What was the endgame? Setting an example to make known the limits of internet freedoms? Proving that commercial interests win over those of citizens? Enforcing a view that capitulation is the only alternative in fights against government? Or were we just witnessing the sum total of frenzied political aspirations – occurrences happening with too much regularity nowadays? 

To decide that ending one's life is a viable, rational option is a personal choice that no other individual is in a position to judge. One cannot guess at another's reasons, justifications and resolve to conclude that the sheer act of living has become perhaps too grueling or less simple and straightforward than it really should be.

In this case, there were reports Swartz suffered bouts of depression. But, one cannot ignore the extreme prosecutorial pressures he was under that almost certainly contributed to his suicide. 

Given the circumstances, many of us empathize with Aaron Swartz. Was it with his much-too-premature death that, at long last, even federal prosecutors could?

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