'Under American Law, Anyone Interesting Is A Felon' – Tim Wu On The Prosecution Of Aaron Swartz
from the destroyed-to-protect-imaginary-property dept
The reactions to Aaron Swartz's suicide continue to pour in and the recurring theme is one of disbelief at the government's hard nosed prosecutorial stance towards Swartz's actions. The Secret Service, for unknown reasons, took over the case and the prosecutor insisted on a guilty plea across the board as well as pretty much guaranteeing jail time for the hacker.
Tim Wu's excellent editorial details how the justice system made a mockery of that first word by relentlessly applying pressure to a young man whose “crime” was truly victimless.
The act was harmless—not in the sense of hypothetical damages or the circular logic of deterrence theory (that’s lawyerly logic), but in John Stuart Mill’s sense, meaning that there was no actual physical harm, nor actual economic harm. The leak was found and plugged; JSTOR suffered no actual economic loss. It did not press charges. Like a pie in the face, Swartz’s act was annoying to its victim, but of no lasting consequence.
This fact cannot be overstated. JSTOR itself declined to press charges against Swartz once its “property” was recovered. But this wasn't good enough for the federal prosecutor who took an outdated law and applied the interpretation that would do the most damage.
In our age, armed with laws passed in the nineteen-eighties and meant for serious criminals, the federal prosecutor Carmen Ortiz approved a felony indictment that originally demanded up to thirty-five years in prison. Worse still, her legal authority to take down Swartz was shaky. Just last year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals threw out a similar prosecution. Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, a prominent conservative, refused to read the law in a way that would make a criminal of “everyone who uses a computer in violation of computer use restrictions—which may well include everyone who uses a computer.” Ortiz and her lawyers relied on that reading to target one of our best and brightest.
Wu says this targeting cut down a genius in his prime — a curious and impulsive young man whose actions were actually less illegal than those of two computing pioneers, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who hacked AT&T's system for free long distance calls and sold “blue boxes” so others could do the same. They were never prosecuted for their actions and went on to found Apple — something a prosecutor like Ortiz could have made impossible.
“We can rightly judge a society by how it treats its eccentrics and deviant geniuses—and by that measure, we have utterly failed,” Wu says. And why? Because an adversarial, zealous prosecutor put in charge of the right case can wreak an incredible amount of havoc in pursuit of “justice.”
Yes, most of the time prosecutors do chase actual wrongdoers, but today our criminal laws are so expansive that most people of any vigor and spirit can be found to violate them in some way. Basically, under American law, anyone interesting is a felon. The prosecutors, not the law, decide who deserves punishment.
Between the system of IP laws that awards fees for imaginary damages and a government that views any information leaks as criminal activity, Swartz never had a chance — and sadly, unless there are major changes in the system, neither will his successors.
In an age when our frontiers are digital, the criminal system threatens something intangible but incredibly valuable. It threatens youthful vigor, difference in outlook, the freedom to break some rules and not be condemned or ruined for the rest of your life. Swartz was a passionate eccentric who could have been one of the great innovators and creators of our future. Now we will never know.
An effort to increase public knowledge, with no profit motive, as misguided and rash as it may have been, was rewarded with an intense crackdown, even after the “victim” had stated it was satisfied with the outcome. No matter your view on intellectual property, it should never have come to this. Swartz brazenly exploited loopholes to liberate documents he felt should have been public domain in the first place, much as he legally exploited free usage of the PACER system earlier.
It's very tempting to couch this discussion in language that pays its due to “rights holders.” Swartz somehow needed to be punished for his deeds, even with some sort of slap on the wrist, because it was legally or morally wrong. MIT was abused. JSTOR was abused. The IP system — the status quo — was abused by Swartz's actions. That's the way we're programmed to feel. That no matter the overreaction, we need to give some quarter to the reacting parties. But when it comes to this situation, it feels completely wrong.
Wu's take shows just how dangerous this form of dues-paying is — grant the system a little token respect before heading off into the “but” section of the argument and you've already justified a reaction. If the reaction seems too harsh, it's too late. You've already implicitly granted the system the right to punish perceived wrongs, something it often handles with ineptness or vindictiveness, and in worst case scenarios, large quantities of both.
The system has little use for rebels, innovators, and the internet-native element that threatens cherished IP institutions. It wasn't pleased with Swartz and the best way to discourage more Swartzes from leaping into action was to lock up the original, or bleed him dry with an extended legal battle. It ended up with nothing. Or rather, it ended up creating a martyr and rekindling a movement — “nothing” would have been better. There will be more like him and, if the system remains unchanged, they will have their futures extinguished as soon as their actions put them in the firing line. The protected works are quantifiable. The extinguished possibilities verge on endless.