I didn't know Aaron Swartz. He was one of those people I had run across once or been introduced to, but I've always been better at remembering Roman generals than people I've actually met. Now, like millions of others who have learned about who he was and what happened to him, I'm not merely saddened by his suicide -- I'm angered by it.
In particular, I take issue with this statement from Carmen Ortiz, the federal prosecutor who felt the 26-year-old Swartz should do 35 years in prison for copying files from a computer: "Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar."
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Meanwhile, for its part in continuing the prosecution, MIT is running public relations interference by appointing a member of its staff who is also a co-founder of Creative Commons to investigate.
I don't agree with Swartz's methods, but I agree with at least some of his aims. Ultimately, his moral offense was minor and the moral offenses of MIT, the government, and the companies that have been writing our laws by proxy lately are major. While you were sleeping, an uneven global digital market was created.
Aaron stole nothing. Stealing is when you, without permission or purchase, take something away that is not yours. If in the act of stealing you decide to use a crowbar, as suggested by the federal prosecutor, you will most likely do some damage and commit more than one crime. Swartz merely hooked up his laptop and made a copy of something that wasn't his.
On the other hand, taking something from a car when the door is unlocked is stealing. Funny thing, though: If I left my car unlocked and someone were to burn a copy of one of my CDs and leave the original behind, I have a feeling the Durham, N.C., Police Department might be really busy that day with actual crimes to investigate. Theft normally deprives the original owner of the use of the thing stolen; Swartz didn't deprive anyone of the use of the information he copied from the computer.