By Abi Hassan
The prosecution of Aaron Swartz and his subsequent suicide is heartbreaking. Aaron’s life and work was an inspiring example of how the Internet can elevate humanity beyond the dregs of rote commerce and cheap thrills. Aaron’s contributions to our society were not the shiny widgets of tech icons like Steve Jobs. Rather, they were ideas and technologies that enriched lives and empowered ordinary people. RSS, Reddit, and Creative Commons are all projects in which Aaron was a key participant; they are also free for anyone to use and represent the essence of the free as in freedom Internet movement.
It was these very ideas that were the cause of Aaron’s prosecution. The DOJ wanted to make an example of him precisely because he was effective at expressing and propagating his dissenting views against the corporate control of our lives. If Aaron’s fans, mourners, and supporters fail to see that what happened to him was not a fluke event, but instead was de rigueur, Aaron’s death will be all the more tragic.
Make no mistake, Aaron was a criminal and, despite popular belief, there was no prosecutorial overreach. The US Attorney who oversaw his prosecution described her office’s actions as “appropriate” and, according to the law, she was telling the truth. The job of prosecutors is to bully and intimidate suspects, using the threat of some of the world’s harshest sentencing laws into plea bargaining for a shorter sentence in exchange for an admission of guilt. This is American “justice;” our current system of severe sentencing and mandatory minimums gives prosecutors overwhelming power – power that was once in the hands of judges and juries – to the point that today less than 5% of criminal cases are resolved by a jury 3% in federal cases.