Did the Government Drive Aaron Swartz to Suicide?

by SHELDON RICHMAN

In Les Misérables, an obsessed French police officer, Javert, relentlessly pursues Jean Valjean, a man who represents no danger to society but whose minor infraction brought down the wrath of the brutal government, including 19 years of hard labor and a lifetime of parole.

America, too, has its Javerts. Zealous and ruthless federal prosecutors have the power to torment people for trivial or imagined offenses, threatening them with decades of barbaric confinement. The consequences can be tragic even when case is not seen through to completion. Take the example of Aaron Swartz.

Swartz faced 13 counts under the 1984 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and, if convicted, could have faced 35 years in federal prison and a million-dollar fine. Earlier this month the U.S. attorney in Massachusetts, Carmen Ortiz, and assistants Stephen P. Heymann and Scott L. Garland refused a plea bargain with no jail time.

On January 11 Swartz hanged himself. He was 26.

“He was killed by the government,” the Chicago Sun-Times quoted Robert Swartz, father of Aaron, as saying after the funeral. (Aaron publicly spoke of being depressed.) A family statement added, “The U.S. Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims.”

What did this young man do to prompt this relentless pursuit? Using the MIT computer network, he downloaded too many published scholarly articles (over four million) from JSTOR, a nonprofit database of academic journals, which charges nonacademics for access. Among his methods, Swartz planted a laptop in a closet at MIT without permission.

For this he was threatened with decades of imprisonment and the life-long stigma of being a felon. Perpetrators of financially significant crimes with victims are not treated so harshly. Why did this happen?

“He was being made into a highly visible lesson,” civil-liberties attorney Harvey Silverglate told Declan McCullagh of  CNET.com. “He was enhancing the careers of a group of career prosecutors and a very ambitious — politically-ambitious — U.S. attorney who loves to have her name in lights.”

Even though Swartz was charged under an anti-hacking statute, he was not accused of hacking anyone’s computer. With unauthorized software, he simply used his own computer to download more published articles than allowed. According to Wired’s David Kravets, “The government … has interpreted the anti-hacking provisions to include activities such as violating a website’s terms of service or a company’s computer usage policy.… The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in limiting reach of the CFAA, said that violations of employee contract agreements and websites’ terms of service were better left to civil lawsuits.”

Unfortunately, that ruling applies only in the ninth circuit. “The Obama administration has declined to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court,” Kravets writes, where it could be affirmed and applied nationwide.

Had that happened, there might have been no case against Swartz, because JSTOR did not want to sue him, even though he crashed its servers, and he agreed not to distribute the material. (MIT had not declined to prosecute.) Subsequently, JSTOR opened its database to the nonacademic public.

So why make an example of Swartz? He was a highly public figure in the movement to safeguard the free flow of information on the Internet. Among his accomplishments was his help in defeating bills in Congress that would have given the executive branch broad authority to shut down websites accused of containing copyrighted material. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) had the backing of powerful industries, such as Hollywood, but a grassroots effort led by Swartz and others forced withdrawal of the bills — a big setback for those who use “intellectual-property” laws to impede the sharing of information.

Swartz previously ran afoul of the government when he provided free access to records in a public federal court database. (The government requires payment by the page.) But no charges were filed.

Swartz was a passionate champion of technology’s power to liberate and democratize. He vowed to fight anything which threatened that potential. This offended powerful vested interests.

A few days after Swartz took his own life, Javert — I mean Ortiz — dropped the charges.

Sheldon Richman is vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation (www.fff.org) in Fairfax, Va.

Sheldon Richman keeps the blog “Free Association” and is a senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society.

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
July 30, 2015
Bill Blunden
The NSA’s 9/11 Cover-Up: General Hayden Told a Lie, and It’s a Whopper
Richard Ward
Sandra Bland, Rebel
Martha Rosenberg
Tracking the Lion Killers Back to the Old Oval Office
Ramzy Baroud
Darker Horizons Ahead: Rethinking the War on ‘IS’
Stephen Lendman
The Show Trial of Saif Qaddafi: a Manufactured Death Sentence
Karl Grossman
The Case of John Peter Zenger and the Fight for a Free Press
Cesar Chelala
Cultural Treasures Are Also Victims of War
John Grant
The United States of Absurdity, Circa 2015
Jeff Taylor
Iowa Conference on Presidential Politics
July 29, 2015
Mike Whitney
The Politics of Betrayal: Obama Backstabs Kurds to Appease Turkey
Joshua Frank
The Wheels Fell Off the Bernie Sanders Bandwagon
Conn Hallinan
Ukraine: Close to the Edge
Stephen Lendman
What Happened to Ralkina Jones? Another Jail Cell Death
Rob Wallace
Neoliberal Ebola: the Agroeconomic Origins of the Ebola Outbreak
Dmitry Rodionov
The ‘Ichkerization’ Crime Wave in Ukraine
Joyce Nelson
Scott Walker & Stephen Harper: a New Bromance
Bill Blunden
The Red Herring of Digital Backdoors and Key Escrow Encryption
Thomas Mountain
The Sheepdog Politics of Barack Obama
Farzana Versey
A President and a Yogi: Abdul Kalam’s Symbolism
Norman Pollack
America’s Decline: Internal Structural-Cultural Subversion
Foday Darboe
How Obama Failed Africa
Cesar Chelala
Russia’s Insidious Epidemic
Tom H. Hastings
Defending Democracy
David Macaray
Why Union Contracts are Good for the Country
Virginia Arthur
The High and Dry Sierras
Jon Langford
Mekons Tour Diary, the Season Finale, Mekonception in Redhook
July 28, 2015
Mark Schuller
Humanitarian Occupation of Haiti: 100 Years and Counting
Lawrence Ware
Why the “Black Church” Doesn’t Exist–and Never Has
Peter Makhlouf
Israel and Gaza: the BDS Movement One Year After “Protective Edge”
Carl Finamore
Landlords Behaving Badly: San Francisco Too Valuable for Poor People*
Michael P. Bradley
Educating About Islam: Problems of Selectivity and Imbalance
Binoy Kampmark
Ransacking Malaysia: the Najib Corruption Dossier
Michael Avender - Medea Benjamin
El Salvador’s Draconian Abortion Laws: a Miscarriage of Justice
Jesse Jackson
Sandra Bland’s Only Crime Was Driving While Black
Cesar Chelala
Effect of Greece’s Economic Crisis on Public Health
Mel Gurtov
Netanyahu: An Enemy of Peace
Joseph G. Ramsey
The Limits of Optimism: E.L. Doctorow and the American Left
George Wuerthner
Bark Beetles and Forest Fires: Another Myth Goes Up in Smoke
Paul Craig Roberts - Dave Kranzler
Supply and Demand in the Gold and Silver Futures Markets
Eric Draitser
China’s NGO Law: Countering Western Soft Power and Subversion
Harvey Wasserman
Will Ohio Gov. Kasich’s Anti-Green Resume Kill His Presidential Hopes?
Jon Langford
Mekons Tour Diary, Episode 4, a Bowery Ballroom Blitz
July 27, 2015
Susan Babbitt
Thawing Relations: Cuba’s Deeper (More Challenging) Significance
Howard Lisnoff
Bernie Sanders: Savior or Seducer of the Anti-War Left?
Martha Rosenberg
Big Pharma’s Profiteers: You Want Us to Pay What for These Meds?