Joe Gandelman: Internet’s child becomes collateral damage
FONTANA, Ca. — It was April 9, 2005 when I met the young person who impressed me so much I’d talk about him for 7 years. I was moderating a panel discussion of bloggers at Stanford University on “eDemocracy: The Role of blogs and Online Activists in 2004” The young person: 19-year-old Aaron Swartz.
I’ve often told people how I was blown away by Swartz’s eloquence, passion, political ideas and ideas even though I didn’t totally agree with him. Clearly, he was a genius, he was charismatic, he was full of joy, he was brimming with determination about the future — and he was the wave of the future.
And now, at 26, he’s dead.
He hung himself.
I got the news Jan. 12. By now Swartz’s story is well known: a computer prodigy at 14 whose intellect created some of what computer users take for granted and an Internet activist, Swartz was facing 35 years in prison and possibly a million dollars in fines for illegally downloading academic papers so people could read them for free.
None of the figures convicted in the Watergate scandal even faced that sentence.
This cyberspace Robin Hood ran smack into an uncaring “system” that wanted to make him a high-profile example for all to see.
He suffered from severe depression and had written about it. But, in the end, his life’s story, character, depression — nothing could move inflexible institutions and prosecutors.
Haunting info on Swartz’s tragic story is in a Boston Globe report by Kevin Cullen. It notes that Swartz and his attorney “had offered to accept a deferred prosecution or probation, so that if Swartz pulled a stunt like that again, he would end up in prison.” The subscription service JSTOR said OK, but MIT nixed it. According to the Globe, prosecutors said no, insisting he plead guilty to all 35 felonies and serve 6 months. The Wall Street Journal says it could have been up to 7 years.
But the most damning quote for any of us who believe in helping young promising people thrive and in using BALANCE when administering justice if they cross the legal line is this quote from the Globe: “‘The thing that galls me is that I told [one of the prosecutors] the kid was a suicide risk,’ (Swartz’s first lawyer) told me. ‘His reaction was a standard reaction in that office, not unique to [him]. He said, ‘Fine, we’ll lock him up.’ I’m not saying they made Aaron kill himself. Aaron might have done this anyway. I’m saying they were aware of the risk, and they were heedless.’”
You don’t have to have been a fly on the wall to imagine someone in the prosecutor’s office respond to Swartz’s plea bargain offer with the phrase: “He made his bed, now he can sleep in it.”
Now Swartz sleeps a deep sleep.
And I wonder: can those at MIT, the Massachusetts prosecutor’s office and the Justice Department whose decisions helped lead to this chain of events sleep at night?
Sadly, I conclude — after the inevitable sigh-I-feel-so-bad or the predictable cover-my-you-know-what comments — the answer is: they’ll move on to focus solely on to their next case.
To those who knew him or knew about him, Swartz was a youthful, quintessentially idealistic, free-spirit intellect who had already changed the Internet, had a lot more he could do — and wouldn’t hurt a fly.
But to others who’d never admit it but saw him as a way to get a notch on their legal belts, make a tough statement to send a message, or get a successfully prosecuted prominent name on a resume for future political office, Swartz is now (their) collateral damage.
Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He can be reached at email@example.com.