Until he hung himself I had no idea who was 26-year-old Aaron Swartz. Now I do. He was a technophile, a brilliant programming prodigy, who additionally was a provocative and controversial thinker on the dissemination of information.
Turns out he was far out. Swartz was a radical on the subject of free information, believing the Internet could and should provide easy, open access to whatever constitutes our collective body of knowledge. In this one way he was similar to Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, and to members of other loose-knit groups such as Anonymous, which are similarly disposed to disclose.
Swartz was also rather like Bradley Manning, the 21-year-old soldier who in 2010 was charged by the government with collaborating with Assange to upload thousands of secret U. S. documents. For his troubles, Manning was sealed in solitary confinement for nine months. Moreover in spite of his facing a possible life sentence, he sits in prison still – over a thousand days after his initial arrest. If only on this one count – if only because was denied the right to a fair and speedy trial – Manning has been abused by the government that once he served.
At the time of his suicide, Swartz was in a situation not entirely dissimilar. In 2011 he was arrested and accused of using MIT’s computers to gain illegal access to millions of scholarly papers – which he then illegally downloaded. Like Manning he believed that what he was doing was right. Like Manning he ran afoul of the law. And, like Manning, the government went after him full force. At the time of his death, Swartz was facing the possibility of millions of dollars in fines and legal fees, and up to 35 years in jail.
My comment is not about whatever the crime Manning did or did not commit, or about whatever the crime Swartz did or did not commit. My comment is about whether or not in both cases the proposed punishment could possibly be said to fit the crime. On the face of it, Manning and Swartz, however different, did share their youth, their idealism, and their deep commitment to the widespread dissemination of all information. For the government to wreck these young lives, to treat these two men as if they were the most abject of criminals, is a misuse, an abuse, of government power. At an absolute minimum the death of Aaron Swartz should occasion a revision of computer crime laws, and the elimination of overzealous prosecutors who are hell bent on squashing any David who dares take on Goliath.