When Aaron Swartz, a technological genius, was found dead last week at the age of 26, an apparent suicide, he joined a phalanx of idealists who died for a cause. Explained simply, he believed that scholarly and scientific information should be shared on the Internet freely, and he did what he could to make that a reality.
Whether his suicide was directly related to his imminent trial under the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is not clear, but under the law he could have been sentenced to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines for the cybercrime he was accused of: downloading and distributing 4.8 million articles and documents from a subscription-only digital service.
Mr. Swartz is said to have broken into a computer-wiring closet at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to obtain the material. The service, Jstor, which distributes scientific and literary journals, did not choose to pursue the case, and M.I.T. officials, who expressed dismay over Mr. Swartz’s death, are investigating the university’s role in the matter. But the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts is noted for “particularly aggressive pursuit of cybercrimes,” according to a former investigator of such crimes for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The disconnect is that technology has galloped far ahead of legal philosophy, that the complex issues raised in cyberspace do not seem to be adequately addressed by accepted concepts of right and wrong.
In what The New York Times called a manifesto, Mr. Swartz had written, “It’s called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn’t immoral — it’s a moral imperative.” It will be a long time, I fear, before justice is appropriately served, at least by hindsight.
It doesn’t seem likely that Bradley Manning, the Army private accused of providing WikiLeaks with massive amounts of classified government documents, did so to fulfill an idealistic goal like the one that motivated Aaron Swartz. But who knows? Perhaps the founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, persuaded Private Manning that exposing federal secrets was in the long-range best interest of an informed, and free, American people. There are parallels between the young men, nevertheless.
Mr. Swartz is credited with having been, at the age of 14, a co-creator of RSS, a basic online tool that allows content to be distributed. He also was one of the people who created Reddit, a social news site now owned by Condé Nast — and Reddit is apt to come up in Private Manning’s trial, which has been put off till June. It seems that Lauren McNamara, who has been expected to be a witness for Private Manning’s defense, chatted with him on Reddit before his arrest and has subsequently used Reddit to express opinions about the case. Only time will tell whether the court of history will determine that doing so was wrong.