Information on the Internet should be free.
It was the mantra of Aaron Swartz.
Odds are you didn’t know of him until this week. The 26-year-old man described as a crusader for social justice/cyber activist committed suicide. It was in the wake of federal prosecution for his crime of using the Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer network to download 5 million academic journal articles from a database that charges for access. Swartz apparently was driven to suicide by Uncle Sam’s bid to prosecute him under the law. The maximum penalty under the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse act is up to 35 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million. Federal prosecutors hinted they would only go for seven years but were willing to bargain that down to as low as six months in exchange for a guilty plea.
There’s a legitimate debate that the possible punishment was way out of kilter. Uncle Sam lets other criminals who break the laws of our financial system get off with a slap on the wrist for wiping out the portfolios of hundreds of thousands of families so they can pocket loot and live like kings.
Even so, the angst over the federal government considering what the founder of Demand Progress did a crime is way over the top.
Swartz apparently knew what he was doing was a crime. Defenders have likened it to someone checking out way too many library books. Close, but no cigar. Keeping with the book analogy, it is more like someone backing up a couple of semi-trucks to a Barnes & Noble and hauling off 5 million books without paying. If each book had a fee of $1 per download it represents a $5 million theft.
If there is no regard or respect for intellectual or data property rights in the Information Age, there isn’t going to be much of an economy left. And make no mistake about it. Markets would not exist without governments.
Government regulates and issues currency and sets the boundaries. Although far from perfect, without government regulating a market the worst of the worst on Wall Street would loot and plunder at will.
Swartz’ crusade isn’t without merit. He constantly fought Internet censorship bills. One could — and should — argue in today’s economy some type of Internet access should be free to conduct commerce much like public roads are free to get goods to market.
It might indeed be the role of government to provide such a basic infrastructure. If someone wants more — such as higher speed — they can take Internet toll roads provided by the likes of Verizon, AT&T and Comcast.
And just because you can use public roads to move around and interact with others doesn’t mean you have the right to break into other people’s houses and businesses and take what you want. That is what Swartz was accused of doing with the Internet — the public road of the 21st century. It wasn’t an act against Internet censorship. It was taking what wasn’t his data — or property — and not paying for it.
Call it what it is — stealing.
This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Journal or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.