This is a post I wrote back on January 11th, on the anniversary of Aaron Swartz’s death, that I’d forgotten about until now. I think it’s just as relevant and appropriate now as it was then.
On July 24, 1846, Henry David Thoreau spent the night in a Concord, Massachusetts jail cell after refusing to pay his poll taxes. It was his way of opposing slavery and the Mexican-American War, what he considered the two faces of evil in America at the time. On January 6, 2011, Internet activist Aaron Swartz was arrested after downloading academic journal articles from MIT’s digital library JSTOR, many of which were publicly funded, with the intent of making them freely available to the public. It was his act of civil disobedience. Two years later, facing up to a million dollars in fines and 35 years in prison, he was found hanging lifeless in his Brooklyn apartment.
Swartz did not commit murder, jeopardize his country’s national security or cause the economic collapse. He simply acted out of principle, misguided or not, and did what so few ever have the courage to do by sacrificing his livelihood, and ultimately his life, for his beliefs. There is still a heated debate over whether Swartz’s actions were justified or not, but all parties seem to agree on one thing: the punishment did not fit the crime, if there was a crime.
It was the vague and ambiguous wording of the Computer Fraud & Abuse Act (CFAA) that allowed for what many consider the overzealous, abusive and cruel prosecution of Swartz. My goal in writing this is to honor the life of a man who was driven to suicide by the twisted game our justice system has evolved into by stressing the importance of remaining informed and engaged. In an age where we spend an increasing amount of our time on the Internet, it’s not only in our best interest, but our responsibility, to collectively shape fair rules and consequences.
The single night Thoreau spent in jail for standing by his principles had such an impact on him that it inspired him to write one of the most famous and important pieces of American literature. What would he have thought if he’d known that following his message of actively, nonviolently refusing to obey certain laws on moral grounds, a message personified through Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela, would result in a 26-year-old man facing an impossible ultimatum?