Prosecutorial Overreach and the Death of a Genius

When the news first hit yesterday of the untimely death of activist and internet genius Aaron Swartz, people from the worlds of academia, journalism, progressive activism and the left-wing hacker culture sat stunned. That so many, from across this broad spectrum not only knew the 26-year old, but had been recipients of his legendary generosity (and sometimes his exacting ire), speaks to a life lived on a grand scale.

Although many of my colleagues knew the man, I did not, and as is too often the case for me, I am getting to know him through his obituaries. His accomplishments in so short a time — from when he wrote the first specification for RSS code at the age of 14, to his co-founding of the aggregation Web site Reddit, to his activism that led to the death of proposed bad internet law — boggle the mind. Today many minds are trying to wrap themselves around the news of his suicide, which took place on Friday night.

Even in death, Swartz is stirring up discussion, this time about the nature of our judicial system. To make a point, he had hacked into JSTOR, the paywall-protected archives of scholarly articles, and Carmen Ortiz, the federal prosecutor in Boston, threw the book at him. He was facing 35 years in prison, despite the fact that he never demonstrated any intent to make money from his prank. Many are attributing his death to this fact.

The New York Times has a thorough obituary. The Nation’s Rick Perlstein offers a revealing elegy.