Saturday, January 12, 2013

Aaron Swartz Suicide

I saw this story trending on Memeorandum and thought, "Okay, let's see what this is all about."

This Swartz guy apparently hacked into the JSTOR academic journal database, gaining access to "millions" of scholarly journals (articles?). He was facing trial on multiple counts and looking at up to 35 years in jail. Most of the commentary's even more emotional than usual, since the guy was some kind of Internet genius. It's like he was some 21st century Jesus, or something.

In any case, Althouse is fascinated by the legal aspect and is sympathetic to the argument of government bullying, although what caught my attention was this comment from Beldar:
Our host asked in comments above, "Assuming the law is important -- as was said about the law David Gregory violated — why was it in the public interest to go against Swartz and try to get this creative, well-meaning, energetic young man put in prison for 35 years?"

But the presumtion that the MAXIMUM potential punishment sought is also the ONLY possible punishment that might have resulted makes this a loaded question.

If the laws he's accused of violating have social value, it's to protect intellectual property.

On other occasions Swartz tried to change those laws more directly, but on this occasion he was accused (apparently with good reason) of having engaged in a massive and deliberate violation of them, indeed the most shocking sort of violation of the law that he could contrive — for, he claimed (in his best Robin Hood voice), the most altruistic of purposes.

What Professor Althouse sees exclusively as a "creative, well-meaning, energetic young man" was indeed probably that, but he may also have been a deliberately notorious thief of intellectual property. Certainly if one only focuses on the "words trying to be free," one comes up with a different evaluation than if one also weighs, for example, the financial damage to the net worths of both the academics and their institutions whom the current law deems worthy of protection.

There's no doubt that the late Mr. Swartz' suicide is sad. But when I'm picking my heroes, even when I'm looking among those whose heroism is supposedly demonstrated by their noble civil disobedience, I expect to see in them a frank acknowledgment and acceptance of the costs and consequences of that disobedience.
More at Althouse, on Lawrence Lessig's comments, "'Prosecutor as bully'."