Today we are all Aaron Swartz

The suicide of the 26-year-old hacktivist highlights how our technophobic government demonizes geeks

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True, Manning's leak of 250,000 government cables to WikiLeaks -- and WikiLeaks' ham-fisted handling of those files, resulting in unredacted copies spilling out onto the Internet -- probably caused real harm to real people. Still, it's hard for anyone to justify what happened next: being held for three years without trial in conditions similar to those at Guantanamo Bay.

But what harm has the Stratfor email leak ultimately caused? Who has been damaged by the downloads from JSTOR?

This is not unlike the well-documented differences in sentencing for cocaine in its powder and crystalline forms. Despite recent reforms, possessing a small amount of crack can still earn you a much more severe prison sentence than the equivalent amount of powder, and we all know why that is.

Here, instead of a racial divide there's a cultural one, with the forces of law and government on one side, geeks on the other. Yes, government has its own troves of geeks, but they're generally not the ones writing laws or making policy. By and large, those who are creating legislation and turning the creaky wheels of justice not only don't understand technology, they're afraid of it. These are not crimes they or their well-connected cronies would ever commit; who cares what happens to those who do?

So when a massive international bank is found to be laundering money for terrorists and drug cartels, it gets a hefty fine, which is of course paid by its customers and shareholders. No executive gets to wear an orange jumpsuit. Nobody at HSBC is looking at doing 35 minutes in jail, let alone 35 years, not even in one of those Club Fed prisons where bad rich white men who got caught are forced to play tennis. They don't even lose their country club memberships or the keys to the Lexus.

But when a skinny kid with a laptop downloads papers nobody other than a few miserable doctoral candidates will ever read, the feds bring out the big guns. What's wrong with this picture? Everything.

By the way, two days before Swartz killed himself, JSTOR made its archives available to the public, free of charge. That stolen property the government says is worth "millions"? Apparently, it's worth a good deal less.

JSTOR finally agreed with Swartz: Information wants to be free. So do we, the people. But our government apparently has other ideas.

Was the government right to aggressively pursue Swartz, or was that yet another case of selective prosecution? Record your verdict below or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "Today we are all Aaron Swartz," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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