In memory of Aaron Swartz: Stealing is not stealing

Why would a brilliant 26-year-old hacker face jail time usually given to murderers?

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.

Stealing nothing

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.

If Swartz had knocked over a bookstore with the intent of depositing the books in a library, he'd have received a mental health evaluation and been threatened with less time. Moreover, if he was caught in the act of knocking over the bookstore, he'd be guilty of an attempted crime and face even lesser penalties. But for some reason, cyber crime is considered deadly serious. He was facing 35 years. You could murder someone and get less time.

So why punish some of the most capable members of our society disproportionately? I think the answer is whom you are offending. Crimes against the poor and the powerless are punished less than crimes against the most powerful forces in society. There is real force behind the lobbying efforts of the RIAA, the MPAA, the BSA, and the SIIA.

It's all about control

In this new cyber world, we face a new kind of serfdom and face a new regime of global censorship.

We will compete in a global labor market, but we can't play videos across national borders. The bookstore can now snatch the electronic book out of our hands and control how many times we lend the book to a friend and even control what a library can loan. You can no longer buy a device and alter it to your liking without violating at least the license or terms of service and possibly the law. By the way, you can "steal" someone's idea even if you've never heard of it before and it was trivial -- good luck fighting the charges!

This isn't about stealing -- this is about controlling the channels of distribution. We're living through the days of Rockefeller oil monopolies and railroad robber barons all over again. Only now we're fighting for our very thoughts, our art, and our culture. From his writings, I think Swartz understood that.

Maybe if what was done to Aaron Swartz gives us pause, and we take some time to think of how this fits together and what we can do about it, maybe --just maybe -- a very sad and senseless death will start to have meaning.

This article, "In memory of Aaron Swartz: Stealing is not stealing," was originally published at Keep up on the latest developments in application development at For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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