Aaron Swartz. Courtesy: Flickr user Sage Ross
“Prosecutors destroy a life.” That could be a headline in every newspaper every day in a land where the answer to every problem (and many nonproblems) is police and prisons. When 26-year-old Internet prodigy and freedom of information activist Aaron Swartz committed suicide on January 11, the tragedy was the direct result of US attorneys deciding to throw criminal charges at him for violating a website’s “terms of services” while accessing publicly subsidized academic research. Swartz entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s open campus, accessed its open network and downloaded a few million academic articles owned by the digital library JSTOR, whose database contains content belonging to hundreds of publishers. JSTOR and MIT now insist they would have been only too happy to drop the matter, but prosecutors pushed forward, throwing four felony charges at Swartz, who then faced a maximum sentence of thirty-five years in prison, along with fines of up to $1 million. Prosecutors shoveled on nine more felony counts in September, bringing the total to thirteen.
The Justice Department’s legal assault on Swartz is of a vindictive piece with the prosecution of others who have carried important information into the public realm. Front and center is 25-year-old Bradley Manning, the Iraq War enlistee accused of being WikiLeaks’s source in the military. The restricted foreign policy documents that Manning allegedly released don’t amount to even 1 percent of the 92 million items the government classified last year, but the young private faces life in prison at his court-martial in June for the charge, among twenty-one others, of “aiding the enemy.” Then there’s Jeremy Hammond, age 28, who in his freshman year at the University of Illinois hacked the computer science department’s home page, then told them how they could fix its problem. He got thrown out of school for that; now he’s in a federal prison facing thirty-nine years to life, charged with various hacks and leaks (all apparently led by an FBI informant) including the 5 million internal e-mails of Stratfor, a private security firm hired by corporations to surveil private citizens, among other activities.
Barack Obama once campaigned as a friend to whistleblowers. Yet his Justice Department has launched twice as many Espionage Act prosecutions against domestic leakers as all previous administrations combined. One defendant, former National Security Agency official Thomas Drake, resembles an older version of Swartz: a former math and chess prodigy, Drake saw wanton illegality in the NSA’s post-9/11 surveillance program. When his internal complaints went nowhere, he went to The Baltimore Sun. The case against Drake crumpled on contact with a courtroom, but it was enough to ruin his career and financial well-being. Drake pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and now works at an Apple Store when he isn’t attending Bradley Manning’s court hearings.
Too often the cause of open information is dismissed as a geek fetish, a tedious hobby for the IT crowd. This is a grave error, as the high barriers around information are literally killing us. Larry Korb, former assistant secretary of defense, has told me he doesn’t think the Iraq War—endpoint of a debate starved of meaningful information, which has slaughtered hundreds of thousands—would have happened had unredacted intelligence reports been made more public.
Circulation of knowledge is a social justice issue, too. Dean Baker estimates that reforming the patent law regime for pharmaceuticals—currently a system that guarantees Big Pharma’s monopolies—would shrink annual spending on prescription drugs from $300 billion to $30 billion, a savings some five times the annual cost of Bush’s tax cut for the richest 2 percent. Meanwhile, grotesquely prolonged copyrights for literary and artistic properties are fencing off the cultural commons, a boot on the throat of a generation’s creative voice.
Prosecutors have cast activists like Swartz as cyber-terrorist Bond villains. In reality, they are more like earnest variations on Lisa Simpson. Swartz’s account of how he got involved with the fight to stop the SOPA/PIPA intellectual property bill in Congress reads like a Capra-esque rhapsody to American democracy. Manning, neck-deep in the worst foreign-policy disaster since Vietnam, hoped his leaks would lead to “worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms” because “without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.” Jeremy Hammond’s rhetoric admittedly tends to the extra-spicy, but many of his alleged misdeeds—revealing corporate spying on ordinary citizens—are a public service. Is getting the truth out really such a bad thing?
To be sure, the truth alone has never been enough to set anyone free. And truth, whether about foreign civilians killed or domestic surveillance programs, is very often the last thing people want. District attorneys know this. Perhaps the greatest tribute to the power of knowledge is the prosecutorial state’s panicked attempts to suppress it.
The notion that information should be easy to come by was not cooked up at the annual DefCon hacker conference. It was James Madison who wrote, “Popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both.” In the year 2013, such an Enlightenment cliché should not be sounding radical. (It is only since the summer of 2011 that Washington finished declassifying material from the Madison administration—a lag measured in centuries.)
The death of Aaron Swartz has rallied a small counterattack against the know-nothing state: mild law professors are spitting nails about bullying prosecutors, and the US attorney overseeing the case, Carmen Ortiz, no longer has a bright future in Massachusetts politics. “Aaron’s Law,” a bill proposed by Representative Zoe Lofgren, would prune the overreaching Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and even right-wing Senator John Cornyn is asking whether the case against Swartz was retaliation for the activist’s assertive use of Freedom of Information Act requests.
These are good developments, but they are overshadowed by runaway overclassification, toothless whistleblower-protection laws and an intellectual property regime driven by greed alone. Ignorance enforced by police and prosecutors will not bring us security, wealth or justice.
William F. Baker writes that the FTC’s investigation of Google has skirted the issue of the search-engine giant’s ability to restrict readers’ access to news.