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The Prosecution of Aaron Swartz Paints Obama's Justice Department as Needlessly Cruel and Capricious

A powerful indictment of our justice system, the Swartz case exemplifies the sick hypocrisy of persecuting information activists while corrupt corporations and bankers get off easy.

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Swartz Shames the Justice Department

In 2008, DOJ briefly experimented with making PACER, its database of all federal court dockets, accessible from selected libraries for free, waiving the $.08 per page it charged users at the time. (It now costs $.10 a page to download a court document from PACER.) During that window, Swartz downloaded about 20 percent of PACER’s materials, and donated them to be accessed for free to anyone who wanted them. (PACER’s fees were shown to be well above the break-even mark for the government.) As Swartz documented a year later when he posted his own FBI file, the bureau investigated and considered charging him, but ultimately dropped the investigation.

Swartz was also a leader in political efforts to defeat a series of laws -- including the deceptively-named Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA -- intended to make it even easier for the government to prosecute copyright violations and, in the process, close off parts of the Internet. As such, Swartz must be considered a political leader who had successfully fought the same kind of legal overreach that ultimately led to the kind of aggressive prosecution that Ortiz and Heymann subjected him to.

Perhaps most important, though, are Swartz’s ties to a group of Cambridge hacktivists who -- at precisely the moment the Secret Service triggered Swartz’s first local arrest -- the government was bearing down on in its investigation of WikiLeaks and the collective known as Anonymous. After all, Swartz was first arrested (despite a lack of evidence that he intended to profit off JSTOR’s archives), just the day before Twitter informed several WikiLeaks associates the government had demanded that the microblogging site turn over information that would allow the tracking of their online activities.

During that same period, the government was subjecting Manning to what a judge has now declared illegal treatment at the Quantico brig where he was being held because, some people surmised, they wanted Manning to help build a case against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Given the timing and Swartz’s proximity, as a public figure, to a community the government wanted to punish or infiltrate, it is hard to see the government’s treatment of Swartz as unrelated to its larger efforts to crush a movement dedicated to the freedom of information.  

As technologist Danah Boyd sees it:

When the federal government went after him -- and MIT sheepishly played along -- they weren’t treating him as a person who may or may not have done something stupid. He was an example. And the reason they threw the book at him wasn’t to teach him a lesson, but to make a point to the entire Cambridge hacker community that they were p0wned. It was a threat that had nothing to do with justice and everything to do with a broader battle over systemic power.

In a filing from late last year defending the way in which it had collected evidence in this case, the government pointed to a 2008 manifesto that Swartz helped write as almost the sole explanation for why Swartz's choice to download the JSTOR archives at MIT -- rather than at Harvard, where, as a fellow in the Safra Center for Ethics, he had legal access to JSTOR materials -- constituted illegitimate activity.

Prosecutors, in their filing, write:

In the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, which Swartz actively participated in drafting and had posted on one of his websites, Swartz advocated ‘tak[ing] information, wherever it is stored, mak[ing] our copies and shar[ing] them with the world.’

The government essentially asserts, then, that Swartz’s First Amendment-protected call to liberate information is part of what made made its investigation of him legitimate.

 
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