For those who didn’t know of Aaron Swartz, or haven’t heard this very sad story, the world lost an incredible talent this week. Sadly, Aaron committed suicide on January 11, at 26. Even in his brief life, Aaron’s accomplished such an incredible contribution to the world that no blog post could do it justice. Among other things, Aaron founded Demand Progress, an activist organization incredibly influential in bringing down awful legislation like SOPA/PIPA; he developed RSS, the syndication technology that eventually spurred services like Google Reader; and was active in Creative Commons, the widely used licensing framework known for its simple rules around redistribution and attribution. Cory Doctorow’s tribute is wonderful, and captures how truly unique Aaron was as a person.
This was a piece of news that felt like a punch to the gut. I didn’t know Aaron, but I know the wonderful things he created. Many of us see and use them every day, even if we don’t realize that we do. I also have a better understanding than most of exactly what we lost when Aaron’s life ended. At 26, Aaron was not even a year older than I, but he was many times more brilliant. Aaron accomplished such great things in his first 26 years, and I feel very cheated that we won’t we have him around for fifty or so more.
Aaron was steadfast and unwavering in his commitment to his principles and his high expectations of people (himself included). As Doctorow notes, that steadfastness got him into trouble from time to time. He faced criminal prosecution for one such effort: reposting public domain articles from the JSTOR academic database, making them available for anyone to read as the authors intended. Even as JSTOR declined to pursue legal action against Aaron, a Federal prosecutor made it his objective to make an example of Aaron. Larry Lessig’s blog post details the hyperbole and smears the government lobbed at Aaron. That smear campaign, combined with the possibility of imprisonment for following his beliefs, no doubt contributed to Aaron’s untimely end.
The question of what, if anything, we might have missed in Aaron’s behavior that could have helped us prevent his untimely death is a difficult one that I’m not in a position to answer.
Two conclusions about Aaron’s story are not difficult, however:
- Observing that this prosecutor’s behavior, whatever may have motivated it, was thuggish, ignorant and wrong.
- We cannot afford to have prosecutors quite literally destroying the lives and reputations of innocent Americans, in their (alleged) pursuit of justice.
Prosecutors (particularly federal prosecutors) start with a deck stacked heavily in their favor. They start with the resources of an entire nation-state behind them, and that same nation-state writes the laws they prosecute to. Often, the defendants are ordinary people of limited resources. Even when they aren’t, the government’s allegations are given significant airplay and inherent credibility. On top of that stacked deck, prosecutors as individuals are generally given broad immunity for questionable conduct; instead, it is the government as a whole (i.e., taxpayers) that are liable for prosecutors’ misconduct.
In today’s society, when the government can make any allegation about any person nationwide news in a matter of minutes, merely being accused of a crime is potentially ruinous to one’s reputation and livelihood. It’s time for our laws to reflect that, and force prosecutors to act with some discretion. Prosecutors are public servants, with an obligation to protect and serve the interests of the people in justice. Qualified immunity incentivizes prosecutors to act not as servants of justice and safety but as soulless machines with an eye toward their own conviction rates and political records.
I’ve created an open letter to my representative (Pelosi) and my senators (Boxer and Feinstein) asking them to set rules for prosecutors’ official statements, to discourage the brand of thuggish behavior the U.S. Attorney practiced in this case. I’d appreciate your help in distributing it (or something like it) to yours as well.