by BAR editor and senior columnist Margaret Kimberley
A brilliant young practitioner of human interconnectedness, Aaron Swartz “played a key role in defeating the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) which used the phony threat of online piracy to make the internet less open.” He was hounded to death by venal prosecutors of “the worst judicial system on the face of the earth.”
Freedom Rider: The State Killing of Aaron Swartz
by BAR editor and senior columnist Margaret Kimberley
“The true cause of Swartz’s demise was government overreach.”
Our government is using its power to destroy and to crush, by any and all means necessary, anyone who runs afoul of the loosest interpretations of the law. Some are persecuted because of information they gain, others because they won’t give the government the information it wants. The end result is sickening, cruel and a destroyer of lives.
Aaron Swartz was the most recent person who paid the price because of a great injustice being carried out against him. The 26 year-old Swartz committed suicide on January 11, 2013 after two years of a relentless effort by the federal government to prevent him from doing what he loved best, insuring that the public had open and free access to the internet.
Swartz was by all accounts a brilliant young man. He was co-owner of Reddit and played a significant role in the development of RSS feed while still a teenager. Most importantly, Swartz was an advocate for open access on the internet and he very publicly campaigned to reach that goal. He played a key role in defeating the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) which used the phony threat of online piracy to make the internet less open.
While suicide may have been the official cause of death, the true cause of Swartz’s demise was government overreach. The worst criminals in our judicial system, prosecutors, asked for and got their pound of flesh.
“He is incorrectly described as a hacker when in fact he did little more than use a loophole to access JSTOR for free.”
In 2011, Swartz used the library at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to download 4 million scholarly articles from the JSTOR system. These articles which ought to be free to the public are not, and while Swartz didn’t pay for them, he also didn’t sell them to anyone either. He is incorrectly described as a hacker when in fact he did little more than use a loophole to access JSTOR for free. Despite the highly questionable nature of his “crime” the United States Attorney in Massachusetts, Obama appointee Carmen Ortiz, and prosecutor Stephen Heymann insisted on throwing the book at Swartz.
He was charged with 13 different felonies which totaled a sentence of more than 30 years. While JSTOR considered the case closed and publicly stated that it would not participate in the effort to prosecute Swartz, MIT stood firm in obeying state authority. A spokesperson gave a curious explanation. “When the federal government chooses to prosecute, you don’t get to say no.”
Of course a prosecutor ought to be told no the same way anyone else is, but it isn’t surprising that an institution which is an integral part of the national security state would refuse to live up to the principles of academic freedom and civic discourse that it purports to defend.
“MIT stood firm in obeying state authority.”
After Swartz death, the prosecutors were quick to reveal that he was offered a six-month sentence in exchange for a guilty plea, forcing him to choose between falsely pleading guilty when he was innocent, or risk decades behind bars. Swartz was just one of many to be caught in the worst judicial system on the face of the earth. It isn’t overly harsh to characterize it that way, but how else can the world’s imprisonment capital be described? There are untold numbers of innocent people who plead guilty rather than trust their fate to the power of the state and the vagaries of the jury system. Our court system gives liars and bullies, prosecutors, unlimited power to use against the people they are supposed to represent.
In this, the Bush/Obama era of the Patriot Act, NDAA and presidential kill lists, the prosecutor’s power is absolute and terrifying and Swartz was not the only victim of the United States Attorney’s office in Boston. In 2012, Tarek Mehanna was prosecuted by the same individuals because he wouldn’t do what the government wanted. Mehanna was asked to be an informant so that the feds might be able to brag about their terror-fighting credentials when in fact all they do is instigate crimes for intimidated or unstable people to commit. Mehanna had committed what can only be described as “thought crimes,” expressing anger over the United States’ many occupations and wars against Muslim people. He allegedly had the first amendment right to criticize the government, but it turns out that neither he nor the rest of us really have the rights we think we do. Mehanna is now serving a 17-year sentence for providing material support to terrorists.
“It is possible that the feds decided to make an example of Swartz.”
It isn’t clear if prosecutors went after Swartz because of the usual desire for self-promotion and career aggrandizement or something more sinister. In December 2010 Swartz made a Freedom of Information Act request for information on the treatment of Bradley Manning. After the M.I.T. incident, it is possible that the feds decided to make an example of Swartz, just as they had made of Manning when he decided to tell the world about the horrors America had visited upon Iraq.
Had Swartz taken his chances with law enforcement he would not have gotten the attention he deserved. It is quite awful that only in death was he able to reveal the depth of corruption among people sworn to uphold the law and the constitution.
Aaron Swartz’s death is a terrible loss to the world and the people who caused it ought to be punished with the same zeal that they meted out to others. Of course we know that will not happen. Ortiz, Heymann and company may be temporarily inconvenienced, but the system is built to protect those criminals and allow them to do the dirty work of the powerful for as long as they like.
Margaret Kimberley's Freedom Rider column appears weekly in BAR, and is widely reprinted elsewhere. She maintains a frequently updated blog as well as at http://freedomrider.blogspot.com. Ms. Kimberley lives in New York City, and can be reached via e-Mail at Margaret.Kimberley(at)BlackAgendaReport.com.