Aaron Swartz died a criminal.
Not long after getting fired from his job at reddit, internet wunderkind Aaron Swartz killed himself, ostensibly over what his estate is referring to as “prosecutorial overreach.” In an age where theft of intellectual property, plagiarism, copyright violation, and piracy are more widely known as “internet freedom,” it’s hardly surprising that the internet is rallying to the cause of this narcissistic, self-absorbed, whiny little freedom fighter.
To be specific, it is the theft of tens of millions of dollars worth of JSTOR articles, breaking and entering into MIT, hacking MIT’s wi-fi network, and then distributing his stolen merchandise to whoever wanted access to it that the prosecution wanted to press against Aaron Swartz. Against these various gratuitous crimes, Aaron faced the merciful (and frankly, net profitable) penalties of up to 30 years in prison and a meager $1 million fine, against the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars worth of subscription-only content that he stole.
If Aaron Swartz had been a bank executive or other Wall Street “fat cat” accused of stealing tens of millions of dollars from an internet publisher, his suicide would have been widely regarded as a satisfying case of justice done right. But because he was a bit player in the social media industry, with ties to internet nerds’ favorite hangout, reddit, he’s being lauded as a hero. This petty criminal, who faced merely the horrifying prospect of actually facing a judge and a jury to make his case that ripping of JSTOR for tens of millions of dollars after breaking and entering a major university was somehow in service of “freedom,” who was staring down the opportunity to explain himself to the shamelessly laudatory internet pirates who worship his name, killed himself, rather than make his case.
And now he is a hero. Good for him. I suppose that beats owning up to your actions. I suppose that beats living up to his reputation as a freedom fighter. I suppose that beats doing the right thing and admitting that he broke the law.
The widespread consensus seems to be that the prosecution in Swartz’s case somehow “intimidated” him into suicide, but lets cut the crap and be honest for a second: if Swartz had been accused of stealing millions of dollars worth of tangible assets, or if his victim had been flesh-and-blood humans instead of flesh-and-blood humans who own a business like JSTOR, or if his breaking-and-entering victims had been private homeowners instead of a major university, nobody would give a second thought to the minuscule sentence he faced compared to the gravity of his crimes, except possibly to say that it was too lenient.
Internet heroism is a curious thing. It is as though any crime is pre-forgiven by internet users if it is conducted entirely over the internet. The internet is a place where a cabal of child pornographers who torment the families of dead children can become heroes just for turning their guns on easy targets like Scientology. It is a place where if you rip off a blogger’s recipe you are suddenly a villain, but if you rip off tens of millions of songs and movies, you are a freedom fighter. It is a place that canonizes petty criminals like Aaron Swartz in the name of freedom and democracy that makes no effort to convince the legislature to legalize blatant theft on the scale committed by Swartz and the pirates and plagiarists he imitated.
And for trying to punish Aaron Swartz for breaking the law, with charges far less than his crimes, the prosecution in his case now faces a petition to remove the lead prosecutor from office. For doing their job. If anything, the prosecution low-balled its charges. And it’s a shame that Aaron Swartz is dead, but if his reason is solely the charges that he faced, then he misinterpreted the mercy being shown him with such lenient charges. He proved his cowardice by tucking his tail between his legs and running when he learned that real life actually imposes consequences on you for breaking the law. And now the internet is tripping over itself to turn him into a cause celebre because of his cowardice, because of his completely unreasonable shock at realizing that, sometimes, you can actually get in trouble for things you do over the internet