The overzealous prosecution of Aaron Swartz

  • Article by: Stephen L. Carter , Bloomberg News
  • Updated: January 26, 2013 - 9:51 AM

The young Internet visionary downloaded scholarly works without paying for them and was aggressively charged with computer crimes. A few days ago, he took his own life.

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thecynic5712Jan. 17, 13 9:20 PM

Excellent piece. The sad part is, it is very true. Virtually every person reading the article breaks some law in some way every day. Scary, isn't it?

mn2niceJan. 17, 1310:40 PM

I agree, excellent article. But with legislators who feel prosecutors can do no wrong, and judges who look the other way, or are way too eager to find excuses for abuse, as the article points out, we all are vulnerable to undisciplined prosecutorial abuse or worse, malfeasance. All it takes is a simple mistake that is overlooked by the police, overlooked by the prosecutor, overlooked by the judge, and the next thing you know you are facing a lifetime in prison for something you didn't do. Think about it. If you dare.

jurburJan. 17, 1311:11 PM

This topic is long overdue. The abuse by overzealous prosecutors and police has got to come into the bright light and be stopped. Between the police who have so little to do besides harass those who live in the same community as them for even the smallest "crime" for which they bag a cigarette butt as evidence taken off a trunk highway traveled by thousands each day to prosecute another young person who spends their days hiding out fearful to walk their town's streets never knowing which "crime" will befall them next to the county attorneys who simply are unable to stop themselves from insanely charging one petty after another for activities that 10 years ago no one gave a spit about. Every time you start your car's ignition and hit the streets you have the potential of committing over 1000 driving offenses on the books in Minnesota. What has become crystal clear here is that the justice system has excelled at proliferating itself to the point of no return. The more laws there are the more police they need to arrest the law breakers which requires more prosecutors to prosecute them who need more judges to hear their charges against them who then require more probation officers to make sure that they do not break anymore laws by requiring everyone to pee in a cup which requires the billion dollar a year justice system court-ordered drug testing which scares our young people so much they jump off courthouse balconies. Of course that action may result in charges be filed against the young man with the new flat face.

hobie2Jan. 18, 1312:33 AM

Please do not refer to what the prosecutors do as the "justice system"... It is false and also insulting to justice... Use "modern legal system" and accord it the respect that it has earned from the "rise-the-ladder using lives and law" prosecutors.

antimonyJan. 18, 13 1:36 AM

Aaron Swartz was not one of America's treasures. He was a burglar, and not a very bright one at that. His sophomoric, dilettantish stab at burglary had the earmarks of foolishness typical of an 8th grader. One of the first things a petty criminal learns is to get away from the scene of the crime. Impetuous Aaron made many visits to the scene of his crime. He came back even after he knew that MIT and JSTOR had detected his activity and would be looking for him.
Wouldn't an even halfway sensible person cut and run after being discovered, not return and escalate the level of intrusion?
Aaron's crime was not harmless. Besides the betrayal of the academic community, MIT pays $830,000 a year for access to JSTOR. Divided over 261 business days a year, that's $3180 a day. MIT's being disconnected from JSTOR represented a five-figure loss to MIT and/or JSTOR.
Mourn his passing if you must but don't hold him up as an exemplar of anything. He was merely a talented programmer who failed to gain the maturity usually concomitant with progress.
Please read Prof. Orin Kerr's posting on for an explication of how the prosecution of Aaron was justified and legitimate.

PatitodehuleJan. 18, 13 2:27 AM

Most of the pieces on Aaron Schwartz have been one-sided, this one included. While it is tragic that he died, he was a hacker ("hacktivist" if you will) he made the decisions to break the law and he made the decision to take his life. I, too, have often argued that prosecutors are overzealous and perhaps this one was. But she certainly didn't push Schwartz to commit crimes and she didn't "push" him to commit suicide. Aaron Schwartz had no right to the papers he allegedly stole, and even if he had the right, rights are only the flipside of responsibilities. Responsibilities means also respecting the rights of others. That includes intellectual property rights--the right to sell what you have discovered.

luzhishenJan. 18, 13 2:54 AM

So if a genius, wizard opens the door to a bank where other people's papers are stored, papers that everyone else has to pay to access, that's not a crime? The guy committed several crimes and, when caught, took the easy way out.

twspt7Jan. 18, 13 5:46 AM

A crucial part of any crime is intent. Mr Carter raises several interesting points in his article, but his example of the person paying their Visa bill on the office computer lacks criminal intent and hence would most likely be thrown out of court. The same standard applies to the unfortunate Mr Schwartz. Did he know what he was doing was illegal when he downloaded almost an entire library of information? I do not know the answer to this question; however, if he was aware of the illegality of his action, I fail to see how his prosecution by federal authorities was overzealous.

gcrileyJan. 18, 13 6:04 AM

Part of the problem is that County prosecutors are elected posts so their goal is strictly a conviction numbers game to keep getting re-elected

beveryafraidJan. 18, 13 6:26 AM

His death is tragic, as is any suicide. But why does every photo of Swartz (including the Star Tribune's) show his face reflecting in the glow of a laptop? Is that supposed to show him as a "visionary"? Anyone else find these posed photos distracting?


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