Eric Posner on Aaron Swartz Case
Aaron Swartz downloaded academic articles from JSTOR in violation of JSTOR’s terms and conditions. He was indicted for violating federal law. Refusing the prosecutor’s plea bargain offer of six months in jail, he killed himself. Depending on who you believe, he misused MIT’s facilities or he did not; he willfully broke the law or unknowingly broke a poorly defined and selectively enforced law; and he sought to destroy intellectual property or only to prod JSTOR to share research with academics and the taxpayers who had financed it. But the facts no longer matter: By becoming a martyr to open access, Swartz has, for better or worse, dealt a blow to government efforts to delegitimize hackers and their values.
The fury occasioned by the government’s prosecution of Swartz might seem puzzling. If Swartz caused no harm, as his defenders argue, then he would have served no prison time at all. But Swartz’s defenders say that prosecutors should not have brought the case or should not have upped the charges to induce him to plead guilty. Swartz was driven to despair by the prospect of a bankrupting trial, jail time, and the humiliating stigma of a felony conviction, all on account of a vaguely worded law that was wielded like a sledgehammer by an obtuse U.S. attorney to score political points.
As Orin Kerr has pointed out, this is a generic complaint about our criminal justice system. Lawmakers pass extremely broad and vaguely worded statutes that criminalize vast swaths of behavior then leave it to prosecutors to decide who to target and who to spare. The major constraint on prosecutors is limited resources, so they threaten defendants with draconian punishments to coerce them into plea bargains. Judges and juries remain backstops against the worst injustices, but because trials themselves are ruinously expensive and can end in long prison terms, defendants often forgo the protections they offer.