When Internet activist Aaron Swartz downloaded a big stack of academic articles that he wasn't entitled to, federal prosecutors in Boston decided to make an example of him. They filed a series of felony charges carrying a possible penalty of 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine.
Prosecutors apparently were seeking publicity for their tough stance on "computer crime," but they're getting publicity they didn't bargain for. Swartz, who had suffered from depression, committed suicide rather than face prison time. The case has outraged Internet activists.
Computer crime experts have been debating whether Swartz actually committed any crimes. (The alleged victim, a database called JSTOR, didn't want to prosecute.) Law professor Orin Kerr has written a long blog post arguing that prosecutors followed the law, and I have no reason to doubt him.
What is missing in the Swartz case is a sense of proportion.
You can kill somebody and get less punishment. When I got up this morning, I read an article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer about a woman who killed a young man in a hit and run accident and then tried to conceal the evidence of her crime. She was sentenced to house arrest, except for the occasions when she gets to leave her home. No jail time.
But if you download some academic publications you aren't supposed to have, you face hard time. Prosecutors have not explained why they felt they had to make an example of Swartz.
Here are some examples of people that Obama's Department of Justice decided NOT to make an example of:
-- Obama's aunt, who was in the country illegally, ignored a deportation order and lived for years in public housing.
-- Obama's uncle, who also has been in the country illegally. He reacted to his drunk driving arrest by saying he wanted to "call the White House."(The president's deportations of people he isn't related to set a record.)
-- The Black Panthers who harassed voters in Philadelphia during the 2008 election. Most of the charges were dismissed after Obama took office.
Activists have launched a petition drive to fire the federal prosecutor who handled the Swartz case.
UPDATE: My son emailed me and pointed out that all of the examples I gave above are people who are black.
Fair enough. Well, I don't know the ethnicity of the health care executives who paid kickbacks to doctors and didn't have to face criminal charges.
UPDATE II: Glenn Greenwald has an excellent article about the Swartz case.