Our View: The world has lost a brilliant mind in Aaron Swartz

DKS Editors

Programmer, developer and Internet activist Aaron Swartz was found hanged in his Brooklyn apartment on Jan. 11. The 27-year-old has been a prominent figure in the digital world since the age of 14, when he co-authored RSS 1.0 with other noteworthy computer scientists, some of whom were twice his age.

Swartz has also been an advocate of free information and network neutrality and was on the front lines of the protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act. Kevin Poulsen, news editor of Wired.com, referred to Swartz as a “coder with a conscience.”

Swartz’s conscience got him into trouble in 2011 when he was indicted for breaking into the computer system at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was not enrolled at the time, and downloaded more than 4 million documents from JSTOR. JSTOR, which is short for Journal Storage, is an archive of academic journals.

Swartz was expected to stand trial this spring, facing up to 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine. According to JSTOR’s statement regarding Swartz’s death, JSTOR had settled any claims against Swartz in 2011. Why then was Swartz’s penalty so high?

“Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death,” a statement released by Swartz’s family said. “The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims.”

Swartz’s penalty seems disproportionate to his alleged crime. The day before Swartz’s death, a Philadelphia man was sentenced to 17 1/2 to 35 years in prison for killing a toddler by rubbing Drano all over it’s body. Is killing a child comparable to stealing academic journals?

We’re not claiming that hacking MIT to free academic journals to the masses is ethical, but at what point does the prosecution go from enforcing the law to bullying to set an example?

We’ll never be sure how much Swartz’s legal troubles contributed to his suicide, but one thing we can be certain of is the world has lost a brilliant young mind.

The above editorial is the consensus opinion of the Daily Kent Stater editorial board.