It’s Tragic That Aaron Swartz Killed Himself, But Don’t Weaken Anti-Hacking Laws Because Of It

by John Hawkins | January 16, 2013 7:18 am

Aaron Swartz was a brilliant man and it is tragic that someone so gifted killed himself, but he died as a result of his own poor decisions, not because of the government[1].

Aaron Swartz, the 26-year-old Internet genius, was eulogized on Tuesday as a person who wanted to make the world better but was hounded into killing himself by harsh government policies.

Swartz was “killed by the government,” his father, Robert Swartz, said at the service at Central Avenue Synagogue in Highland Park, Ill., according to the Chicago Sun-Times. “He was killed by the government, and MIT betrayed all of its basic principles,” he said.

Facing the possibility of a long prison sentence if convicted of charges that he illegally downloaded millions of academic journal articles, Swartz hanged himself in his New York apartment Friday. The death of one of the founders of news and entertainment website Reddit and a longtime activist for an open Internet has ignited outrage among many in the electronic community who view him as a martyr to government prosecution.

“Today is the funeral of Aaron Swartz, who contributed so much to the launch of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and our technology during our first 20 months,” the group said in an email to reporters. “His suicide followed an over-zealous prosecution for a crime with no victims — by a Justice Department that has yet to prosecute the Wall Street bankers who destroyed our economy and harmed millions of lives. Our hearts go out to Aaron’s family and partner.”

Swartz was accused of stealing articles from JSTOR, an academic database at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Swartz was a longtime activist for an open Internet and it brought him into conflict with prosecutors who accused him of 13 felonies.

Although his indictment on 13 felony counts was announced by U.S. Atty. Carmen M. Ortiz in Massachusetts, accounts from Swartz’s supporters say much of the behind-the-scenes negotiations were handled by Assistant U.S. Atty. Stephen P. Heymann.

Of course, this ignores the fact that Swartz knew what he was doing was illegal, went to great lengths to break the law and had already been in trouble before on similar charges[2].

Authorities charge that, when MIT tried to shut off the downloads, Swartz hid and altered his computer’s network identity and eventually sneaked into a closet at the university’s Cambridge, Massachusetts, campus to gain access to the 4 million articles.

“The prosecutors weren’t stretching the law to fit the facts,” said Orin Kerr, a professor at George Washington University law School and a former federal prosecutor. “The law is broad and seems to cover this kind of act.”

….Hofmann and many of Swartz’s supporters believe that might be what happened to the popular online activist, one of the inventors of a key Internet standard called RSS, which is used by media companies and bloggers to distribute articles. More than 30,000 people have signed an online petition calling on the administration of President Barack Obama to remove U.S. Attorney Ortiz from Swartz’s case, a move that would have little practical effect after his death.

Ortiz’s office declined to comment.

Swartz had been investigated before after downloading almost 20 million pages of text from a government-run database of court records called PACER in 2008. No charges were filed.

Hacking is not a game or a victimless crime. Companies lose billions on cracked software and security to try to keep hackers out of their systems, websites are crashed and defaced, billions of dollars worth of software are stolen, and people’s emails and other private data is released to the public.

If anything, the government should be devoting a great deal more resources to tracking down and jailing hackers. However, the government being the government, it’s too rigid, stupid and slow to be going after hackers as it should be. So, since that’s the case, the penalties for being caught need to be severe. If the chances of being caught are low AND the penalties are small, there’s no deterrent value. That’s why hackers need to be hit with draconian penalties because that’s the only hope you have of discouraging them.

Again, it’s sad that Aaron Swartz killed himself and it’s easy to understand why his family and friends would be looking for a scapegoat. But, Swartz wasn’t some twelve year old kid. He knew he faced the possibility of jail time if he was caught and he did it anyway. It’s just too bad that he chose to hurt the people he cared about and waste his incredible talent by killing himself instead of facing the music.

  1. but he died as a result of his own poor decisions, not because of the government:,0,648108.story
  2. that Swartz knew what he was doing was illegal, went to great lengths to break the law and had already been in trouble before on similar charges:

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