Aaron Swartz: cannon fodder in the war on internet freedom

This morning’s Observer column.

Even those of us who shared his belief in open access thought this an unwise stunt. But what was truly astonishing – and troubling – was the vindictiveness of the prosecution, which went for Swartz as if he were a major cyber-criminal who was stealing valuable stuff for personal gain. “The outrageousness in this story is not just Aaron,” wrote Lawrence Lessig, the distinguished lawyer who was also one of Swartz’s mentors. “It is also the absurdity of the prosecutor’s behaviour. From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterise what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. The ‘property’ Aaron had ‘stolen’, we were told, was worth ‘millions of dollars’ – with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime. But anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of academic articles is either an idiot or a liar. It was clear what this was not, yet our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed.”

The phrase that came to mind when I first saw the indictment against Swartz was Alexander Pope’s famous rhetorical question: “Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?” It would be possible to write off the Swartz prosecution (as some have done) as the action of a politically ambitious attorney general, but actually it fits a much more sinister pattern. It was clear that a decision had been made to make an example of this cheeky young hacker and in that sense this grotesque prosecution sits neatly alongside the treatment of Corporal Bradley Manning, not to mention the hysterical reaction of the US authorities to WikiLeaks…