If you have been following the news you must be aware that Aaron Swartz, a social-networking pioneer, academic researcher and clumsy hacktivist, has killed himself. Though he left no suicide note many people attribute his death to the fact that he was facing federal charges that could have sent him to prison for many decades.
I feel obliged to comment since I responded to the original news of his arrest with a somewhat sardonic post called “When Ethicists Steal.” (Swartz was a Fellow at the Harvard University Ethics Center and the title referred to my long-held suspicion that self-styled academic “ethicists” just come up with rationalizations for their gut feelings and present them as scientific results, far superior to the ethical opinions of mere mortals.)
Swartz downloaded a vast number of academic articles from the JSTOR database. He apparently believed that they should be freely available to the public. Who knows? Maybe he was right, given that the public probably paid for the research with their tax dollars.
However anyone with any involvement with computers should understand that it is not OK to enter a network wiring closet without permission in order to make an unauthorized connection to the network. Surely this would justify some sort of criminal penalty.
On the other hand what he did was in no way comparable to murder. It was more on the level of entering an empty house though an unlocked door and taking a sandwich from the refrigerator. Except that nobody was deprived of a sandwich. (JSTOR, the aggrieved party, didn’t lose any money and didn’t want to press charges.)
So the loud outcry that the federal prosecutor was abusing his power by threatening to send Swartz to prison until he was an old man is not without merit. We have lost a bright and promising young man whose actions were surely misguided but not evil.
On the other hand we are not dealing with a rogue prosecutor here. This is what prosecutors do every day, though usually not to people with so many friends in the media. They routinely threaten to send people to prison for the rest of their lives in order to pressure them to plead guilty to reduced charges–even if they are innocent. That’s the kind of justice system we have and presumably that’s the kind of justice system the voters want, otherwise they would change it.