By Nicholas Sauma, Reporter
A lot of people have heard about Aaron Swartz in the past week, but his death really wasn’t about Reddit. In fact, his death is far more than the death of a single person, but almost as a martyr for a cause. This cause is referred to in many ways, but perhaps “open Internet” is the best.
Swartz was an important developer with Reddit and worked on RSS technology, but his main actions online were attempts to free up the Internet and information. He was charged with distribution of scholarly journals and articles through his free MIT subscription to JSTOR. The case against him seemed pretty convincing; however, the philosophy behind his actions is neither new nor dying.
Ever heard of Linux? Or Open Source? Programmers and developers have been working for decades to provide free alternatives to operating systems like Windows and Apple and countless free programs that can do anything from edit photos to encrypt your hard drive. Fast-forwarding to today, there has been a lot of discussion even among scholars about the benefits of releasing information more publicly. Science and technology move so quickly already that advocates for opening up new research ask, how much faster could we move forward if everyone could see and contribute?
The forces on either side were manifested in Swartz’s case. He was being prosecuted for computer fraud by the federal government, a position defended by intellectual property rights holders, publishers, and US legal code. However, Swartz’s side is a philosophy and a growing one at that. During the SOPA/PIPA legislation debates, Swartz, the Internet in general and giant companies like Google united to keep regulation from increasing. The argument isn’t whether or not making other people’s work publicly available is legal; it’s whether or not it ought to be.
Beside this giant debate lay a second, equally contested side issue. The initial charges by the prosecutor stated up to 35 years in prison and a hefty fine. However, as the office of the prosecution released a statement defending their right and justification in doing so, the nature of the questioning changed. Most people would agree that prosecutorial power was not abused in this case (at least unless new information turns up); however, why was it so heavy-handed to begin with? The prosecutor acknowledged the charges would probably be minimal, not even a year in prison. So, why the scare tactics?
Plea bargaining and prosecution tend to be associated with drug charges. However, as crackdowns on computer crime increased with the Patriot Act and continued by the Obama administration, people are starting to wonder why what Swartz did is being treated the same as manslaughter.
Last summer a UNL student was accused of hacking into the NU system. The charges were set to 10 years in federal prison and $250,000 in fines, despite the fact there is no evidence to date that any information was stolen or distributed. Again, the question isn’t about breaking the law, but rather about why the punishment for such crimes is so extreme.
Swartz will be the new martyr for the Internet cause. Already, the “hacktivist” group Anonymous has taken down MIT’s website and surely won’t stop there.
The Internet is quickly becoming a powerful tool for action, legal or otherwise, and these fights between government, publishers, and patent holders against free, open-source “hacktivists” is only going to continue.