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.