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.


  1. Jay says

    I just posted this at Justin Griffith’s blog. It’s in moderation due to the number of links I think.

    Anyway, I corresponded with Aaron a decade ago, and read some forum posts he made at a site we both frequented and it was clear he was smart then, and later as I kept reading about his accomplishments, I had a phony sense of pride since I knew him back when.

    His loss is terrible. I feel very badly about this.

    There has been some terribly sad, but wonderful articles written about Swartz.

    Here is Rick Perlstein: http://www.thenation.com/blog/172187/aaron-swartz which is one of the best.

    Glenn Greenwald says the prosecutor is notorious for her “overzealous prosecutions”. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jan/12/aaron-swartz-heroism-suicide1

    There is a petition to remove her from office over this:

    We should all keep in mind, that we each commit three felonies a day: http://www.harveysilverglate.com/Books/ThreeFeloniesaDay.aspx

    But that that is the tip of the pyramid on how society has over penalizes, over fines, over charges its citizens, over tazes, often at the demand of citizens to crack down on this problem, or use these people to pay for that, or just get tough on crime

  2. Quixote2 says

    The arrogant government prosecutors who, in effect, murdered Aaron, as well as the irresponsible academics who shrugged their shoulders in indifference and the various media outlets that casually reported on his arrest, should think carefully about the lack of proportion in the American criminal justice system, and the devastating impact it can have on real lives.

    Authorities in New York have undertaken a similarly disproportionate assault on Internet freedom, arresting and prosecuting a blogger who sent out “Gmail confessions” about the Dead Sea Scrolls, in which a well-known New York University department chairman appeared to be eccentrically accusing himself of plagiarism. And again, there appears to be nothing but silence from the relevant communities. For further information on the case, see:


  3. left0ver1under says

    Other such cases of prosecutorial bullying include Ehren Watada and Kevin Mitnick, both overcharged by prosecutors (read: persecutors) for their alleged “crimes”.

    Watada, like Manning, was being made an example of by the US military. His alleged “crime” was refusing to serve in Iraq which he considered an illegal war (arguing that refusal fell under the “doctrine of command responsibility”). He asking to instead serve in Afghanistan, but his “superior” officers refused. The incompetence of the judge and prosecutors in his case allowed Watada to walk free after they – not Watada or his lawyer – dismissed the charges and brought double jeopardy into effect.


    Mitnick was one of the first high profile hackers and the department of injustice hurled inflated charges against him, much like was done to Swartz. Mitnick’s two “crimes” were:

    * trespassing in computers, breaking in (with intent to learn, not to steal or cause damage)
    * copying a file from AT&T’s computers which was selling as a printed manual for US$20

    Mitnick was not distributing the book, he was simply reading. But he was treated as if he had stolen millions or broken down entire systems.


    Robert Morris’s computer worm caused far more harm than Mitnick did (an estimated $100,000,000 in costs to computer systems back in 1988) but got a slap on the wrist…likely because his father was a high muckity-muck working for the NSA.


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