The Land of the Free, which is famous for hounding people to death, has yet more blood on its hands after web prodigy Aaron Swartz killed himself under the weight of bogus court actions.
Desperate to prove to Hollywood that its lobbying dollars have paid off, the US government has been carrying out a campaign against people it identifies as hackers.
Evidence, or even a crime is not necessary, all that is required is to play the legal system until the “hacker” folds and accepts a “deal” and time inside for a crime he or she did not commit.
Swartz, 26, was an internet activist, and co-founder of Reddit. The fact that he was not your normal script kiddie can be seen by the huge outpouring of tributes to him from some great names in the industry.
In July 2011, the US government indicted Swartz for downloading 4.8 million documents from online academic journal library JSTOR. Swartz had legal access to JSTOR’s files, however, he broke into the networks of nearby MIT to pull the materials – and that gave the DOJ the excuse to throw the book at him.
In September 2012, he returned to court to plead not guilty to charges of wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer. The DoJ was threatening him with 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine.
Ironically, JSTOR, which never acted against Swartz, began offering limited free access to its materials.
Swartz was a prodigy. At 14, he co-authored an early version of RSS and later helped to build Reddit. After the site was purchased by Conde Nast in 2006, Swartz engineered his own dismissal and got cashed out.
But he miffed some powerful heads in government. In 2009, he hacked into a free trial of Pacer, an online database of court records. He managed to download 20 million documents. At the time no charges were filed, after all, he had not done anything.
Security spooks were also unhappy about his work for the Avaaz Foundation, a non-profit web movement to “bring people-powered politics to decision-making everywhere”.
In 2010, he founded Demand Progress, a people powered lobby that worked hard to defend web freedoms against bills like SOPA and PIPA. He was, by now, clearly on the radar.
The case against Swartz was just silly. As Demand Progress’ executive director, David Segal, put it, it was like trying to jail someone for taking too many books out of the library.
The government characterised what Swartz did in the most extreme and absurd way, claiming that the “property” Swartz had “stolen,” was worth “millions of dollars”.
Everyone knew that anyone who thought there was money to be made in a stash of academic articles was either out of their mind or spinning something. Yet the DoD proudly trumpeted his arrest as if it had caught Osama Bin Laden.
The idea appears to have been to force the victim to confess to a lesser crime in return for most of the charges being dropped and the person not having to do jail time. This saves the US from having to carry out an expensive trial, but also removes the need to prove to a jury that a crime has been committed.
This also leads to legal negotiations, and the continuous threat of jail time and the stress that came with it is believed to be what led Swartz to kill himself. Swartz wrote about bouts of depression on his personal blog.
It was fairly clear that someone like him would not be able to cope with the legal game that the DoJ was playing. The paperwork suggests it really was a game.