There are no words to describe the loss to the world of brilliant technologist Aaron Swartz, who killed himself this weekend at the age of 26.
Aaron had already helped to develop RSS and Reddit, worked to stop the Stop Online Piracy Act, and was deeply involved in Internet activism. He could easily have devoted his extraordinary skills only to profit; instead, he committed himself passionately to openness and the spread of knowledge. Lawrence Lessig has summarized his work far better than I can. The creator of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, gave the eulogy at his funeral.
Aaron’s death teaches us an important lesson about how the law operates here in 21st-century America. He was not the only local activist to be unnecessarily persecuted by government agencies. Laws relating to our Internet activities have been drawn so widely and so poorly that eager prosecutors can find grounds for indicting more or less anyone, for things that in former times the law would not have defined as crimes at all. Government agencies can now open investigations on people, and subject them to the sledgehammer of the criminal justice system, on the strength of nothing more than unwise posts on Twitter or translating the wrong materials. Prosecutors answer to nobody regarding the fairness or proportionality of their investigations.
The result is that dissidents who hamper powerful interests can far too easily be investigated and silenced. The result is that brilliant, original and public-spirited souls like Swartz exhaust their energies on meaningless legal battles, rather than developing new and wondrous technologies to solve problems we all face. We’ll never know now what Aaron Swartz would have come up with next, thanks to the casual brutality of a criminal justice system that cares more for creating criminals than for achieving justice.
Know what side you’re on. Overcriminalization hurts us all. We need to stand together, and rein in this crazy system, before it chews us all up.
UPDATE: Journalist Radley Balko has an excellent piece on “The Power of the Prosecutor” – go read it!