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February 25, 2013

On the Aaron Swartz Tragedy

 
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Several years ago I was at the doctor's office for an annual physical.  I noted that this particular physical seemed more thorough than usual and included an electrocardiogram test.  After the physical the nurse told me that the doctor wanted to talk to me and that she would be in shortly.  I started doing the math and alarm bells went off...extra tests, I am getting older, doctor wants to chat with me.  She came back and reported that everything looked fine, that the blood results would be back in a day or so, and then asked me two questions that at that moment I found peculiar—do I regularly wear my seat belt and how good do I feel about my life.  Ok, alarm bells again!

As it turned out she was doing what she could to check my health as related to the two most likely causes of death for a 30 something male—car accidents and suicide. Men from 20 - 40 years old commit suicide as much as 3 to 4 times more often than women. Theories abound as to why, from broken relationships to work stress, but regardless the end result is an alarming, heart breaking, sad fact that is rarely discussed much less appropriately focused on.

A recent tragedy, that of Aaron Swartz, the enormously gifted computer programmer, entrepreneur and activist, has made me again wonder about what could be done to spot the signs before such a horrible act takes place.  The recent Rolling Stone article certainly makes it sound like there were warning signs.

Adding to those signs came the additional pressure of being indicted by the Justice Department. In the summer of 2011 he was indicted "on multiple counts, including computer and wire fraud, charges that carried sentences of up to 35 years in federal prison." This indictment was for his allegedly logging on to, with the intent to steal, "an online library of academic journals that universities pay yearly subscription fees of up to tens of thousands to access. Using a script he had built not unlike the PACER crawler, Swartz began to download an extraordinary volume of articles. Over the course of the next three months, he found ways to circumvent attempts to block his connection, eventually hardwiring his laptop directly to the school's servers from a restricted utility closet. By January 2011, he had downloaded nearly 5 million documents from JSTOR's database."  Further, "Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. attorney overseeing the case, and Stephen Heymann, the government's prosecutor, made their understanding of Swartz's intentions clear from the outset. 'Stealing is stealing,' noted Ortiz after the indictment, 'whether you use a computer command or a crowbar.'"

Some have claimed that the prosecution drove him to commit suicide. Certainly we know that prosecutors can abuse their authority such as one did when going after the Duke University lacrosse team. As I wrote previously on the topic of abusive prosecution.
The federal government has many powers at its disposal to coerce citizens into action or inaction—taxing, regulating or compelling people to testify, to name a few.

Of all these powers perhaps one of the most feared is the power of government to indict, that is, to bring a sworn allegation, or charge, against an individual or organization. Yes, the indictment must be proven at a trial—but only if the process gets that far and very often it never does. New York Attorney General Elliot Sptizer, for example, has made a career out of bluffing companies into settling accusations before they are ever given a fair hearing in court.

Those conned organizations agree to a fine and accept the public perception of guilt in order to avoid taking their chances with a jury.

But if an indictment is nothing more than an accusation, then why fear it?

Look no further than the government’s indictment of Arthur Andersen. By hastily bringing a one-count indictment against the firm instead of against individual partners, the Justice Department doomed Andersen to an early and undeserved death. Even without a trial Andersen ceased to exist as clients fled, believing the government’s accusative rhetoric, unwilling to risk their operational future when the federal government was smashing in the doors.
An indictment, to say the least, can be stressful and life rattling. But, so far as I am aware, nothing has directly linked the prosecution and his suicide. I should also note that the point is not that every prosecution is wrong headed or an indication of an abuse of power but rather abuse does sometimes occur, perhaps more often than most of us are comfortable acknowledging because the resulting damage is very real.

Some have argued, perhaps opportunistically, that copyright laws are hurting America and led to the suicide. Whether they are hurting America or not, at best using a suicide as an opportunity to make that argument is distasteful and lacks even a semi-serious analysis. The very notion turns the rule of law on its head. We do not dismiss a law because the accused, or convicted, suffer because of the law. In fact, one purpose of punishment is to make the perpetrator will suffer. We also do not dismiss laws because those accused of breaking them are indicted...obviously.

Cybercrime is as real as "real world" crime. Breaking laws online should be punished, should be prosecuted correctly. When a person knowingly breaks the law then presumably they are accepting that they will be prosecuted and will be punished. Granted, some people consider the consequences more thoroughly than others but regardless, knowingly doing wrong should be seen as an understanding that consequences will follow.

If this is not how we view law and punishment then what is to be done in the recent case when Anonymous "hactivists" were convicted on conspiracy to impair the operation of computers? Or if Chinese hackers penetrate computers operating our critical infrastructure? Isn't that just "unauthorized computer access" too? Should we not have laws against hacking in to personal, corporate or government computers even if the information found there is not distributed? What should we do if someone knowingly uses materials made for a limited use wrongly?

Rather than making this horrible loss of a brilliant human a springboard for copyright bashing, how about we follow his example and become activists, but about something much more serious—trying to find a way to radically decrease the suicides of young men. Certainly if the "Internet community" can gather to stop a piece of legislation the same community can gather to successfully reach out to and help hurting people in that community.



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