Taking Issue With Recent Maui News Editorial On The Prosecution Of Aaron Swartz

There’s no way I was the only person who thought The Maui News‘ denunciation of Aaron Swartz–an  internet activist who recently killed himself after getting a whole law library thrown at him by a United States Attorney for online hacking that led to him stealing millions of academic research papers–was odd and out of place, even for that paper. On Jan. 16 that great bastion of law and justice otherwise known as The Maui News editorial page puffed about how U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz was right to hound Swartz:

“Intellectual property is property. Only the owner can decide whether to charge for it or give it away. To ignore Swartz’s transgressions would have been the equivalent of telling authors there is – officially – no value to your writings.

“Swartz’s death is a tragedy. But the actions that eventually led to it were not heroic – they were a crime.”

Missing from the editorial–which quoted liberally from Ortiz–was any discussion of whether the legal force the federal government was pressing down on Swartz actually fit with the magnitude of his crime. No one denies that stealing academic research papers is a crime–but was it so heinous that it was necessary to make him face the possibility of spending many, many years in prison?

Thankfully, most people with access to a computer who are willing to commit advocacy journalism see things differently than The Maui News. Today, Charles P. Pierce put up this blog post on Esquire‘s site that nicely encapsulates what many see as a gross miscarriage of justice by quoting heavily from a Jan. 24 Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly piece by Harvey A. Silvergate. And Silvergate doesn’t mince words:

“The ill-considered prosecution leading to the suicide of computer prodigy Aaron Swartz is the most recent in a long line of abusive prosecutions coming out of the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston, representing a disastrous culture shift. It sadly reflects what’s happened to the federal criminal courts, not only in Massachusetts but across the country.”

[...]

“Aaron Swartz was a victim of this system run amok. He was indicted under theComputer Fraud and Abuse Act, a notoriously broad statute enacted by Congress seemingly to criminalize any use of a computer to do something that could be deemed bad.

“As Harvard Law School Internet scholar Lawrence Lessig has written for The Atlantic: “For 25 years, the CFAA has given federal prosecutors almost unbridled discretion to bully practically anyone using a computer network in ways the government doesn’t like.”

Shaping the punishment to fit a crime is every bit as important in our legal justice system as is the prosecution itself. It would be nice if The Maui News someday acknowledged that.

Photo of Aaron Swartz: Sage Ross/Wikimedia Commons