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Harrop: Aaron Swartz was accused of real crimes

Published: Monday, Jan. 21, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

Aaron Swartz: Robin Hood or John Dillinger? He was not as virtuous as Robin and hardly as bad as John. Call the computer genius saint or sinner, few will argue with labeling his suicide at age 26 a “tragic loss.”

His friends in the “free culture movement” now accuse federal authorities of having driven Swartz to kill himself over “baseless” charges. But he did break into a computer-wiring closet at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and download academic papers for free distribution to the world. Had he been a street kid ripping off copper pipes – as opposed to tech star “liberating” information – would there have been much outcry over a prosecutor’s threat of jail time?

The charges, made under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, could have brought Swartz up to 35 years in prison – and, yes, that seemed extreme. However, the feds had indicated that a guilty plea might prompt them to eventually bargain down his sentence to as little as six months, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Were the authorities trying to make Swartz an example to deter others from lifting intellectual property? Perhaps. Examples are made all the time.

Swartz was a significant figure in the “free culture movement,” dedicated to making information free on the Internet. And he was without a doubt brilliant. At age 14, he helped invent RSS, software that helps distribute updated pages to websites.

He was a founder of Reddit, the social-news site later sold to Conde Nast. Much liked, he made powerful allies.

Lawrence Lessig – a Harvard law professor, critic of the copyright laws and friend of Swartz – argues oddly that the downloaded academic works are worthless – therefore, where’s the crime?

“Anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar,” Lessig writes on his blog.

Clearly, there IS money to be made on the articles, otherwise the subscription service JSTOR couldn’t charge for them. Anyhow, if the scholars are getting pauper pay for their intellectual sweat, why steal from THEM?

Calling the charges against Swartz “baseless,” historian Rick Perlstein writes on his blog for The Nation of the time Swartz made him a website for free. They became such good friends that Perlstein sent him chapters of his book, “Nixonland,” as they were finished. I wonder how Perlstein would have felt had Swartz turned around and put those chapters online for free downloading – thus rendering his 748 page opus commercially worthless. I certainly would have appreciated saving the more than $30 I plunked down for the hardcover edition of that (very good) book.

Swartz was already known to suffer from depression, having written of suicidal thoughts in the past. That made some see the harsh legal approach as a particular outrage. His family also complained that MIT “refused to stand up for Aaron.”

What we hear is the voice of privilege: Sensitive Ivy Leaguers are to be treated more gently than thugs found prying radios out of cars. (Anyone interested in the mental sate of the drug-addled dropout?)

And why did MIT have to stand up for anyone, much less a nonstudent, breaking into its facility?

Orin Kerr, a George Washington University law professor who has both helped cybercrime defendants and aided in their prosecution under the same law, wrote on his Volokh Conspiracy blog that the charges against Swartz stood on solid legal ground.

“I realize this post isn’t going to be popular,” he noted.

Without a doubt, Swartz’s death is a heartbreak. Whether the government overreached is subject to debate. That Swartz was accused of real and significant crimes should not be.

• Froma Harrop is a member of the Providence (R.I.) Journal editorial board.

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