Aaron Swartz and the prosecutor as bully

Not being very technology savvy, I had never heard of Aaron Swartz before his suicide yesterday at the age of 26. It turns out that he was a computer whiz who had developed at a very young age, among other things, RSS and Redditt. His main passion was to enhance the free flow of information and he was a fierce advocate of internet freedom and critic of those who would privately profit from the free work of others, which is what eventually led to actions that put him in the cross hairs of the legal system. (See the history of the case here.)

Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig knew Swartz as a friend and as his lawyer and writes a scathing condemnation of prosecutorial bullying. This is where prosecutors use all their resources to go after some people, as if they were trophies, seeking maximum charges and prison sentences without considering any mitigating factors, often driving their victims to desperation. Swartz’s family said that he hanged himself because he feared that he would spend the next 30 years in prison.

Dan Gillmor, who also knew Swartz, writes:

Aaron whose work was entirely about making our world a better place, died by his own hand. He was 26, and he had a history of depression. But the demons that carried him over the edge surely got a boost from the United States government, which was prosecuting Aaron in a manner that demonstrated contempt for the facts, fairness, and the justice system itself.

The case against Aaron, an object lesson of what happens when authority is cynically abused by the people in power, threatened more than Aaron’s liberty and his great work. It threatened us all.

It is the same kind of attitude that the government is taking with Bradley Manning. The government goes viciously after people who are low-level and acting in what they believe is the public interest, while letting powerful criminals who enrich themselves at the expense of ordinary people (Wall Street and the financial sector being glaring examples) go scot free.

This is why I keep saying that the Justice Department is the one agency where the top people have to be vetted carefully to ensure that they are fair and reasonable, because more than any other government agency (except perhaps the Department of Homeland Security) they have the power to target, bankrupt, and destroy individuals.

Update: Jay in the comments has given a link to a moving tribute by Rick Perlstein.