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Aaron Was a Criminal and So Are You

Abi Hassen

The prosecution of Aaron Swartz and his subsequent suicide is heartbreaking. Aaron’s life and work was an inspiring example of how the Internet can elevate humanity beyond the dregs of rote commerce and cheap thrills. Aaron's contributions to our society were not the shiny widgets of tech icons like Steve Jobs. Rather, they were ideas and technologies that enriched lives and empowered ordinary people. RSS, Reddit, and Creative Commons are all projects in which Aaron was a key participant; they are also free for anyone to use and represent the essence of the free (as in freedom) Internet movement.

It was these very ideas that were the cause of Aaron's prosecution. The DOJ wanted to make an example of him precisely because he was effective at expressing and propagating his dissenting views against the corporate control of our lives. If Aaron's fans, mourners, and supporters fail to see that what happened to him was not a fluke event, but instead was de rigueur, Aaron's death will be all the more tragic.

Make no mistake, Aaron was a criminal and, despite popular belief, there was no prosecutorial overreach. The US Attorney who oversaw his prosecution described her office's actions as “appropriate” and, according to the law, she was telling the truth. The job of prosecutors is to bully and intimidate suspects, using the threat of some of the world's harshest sentencing laws into plea bargaining for a shorter sentence in exchange for an admission of guilt. This is American “justice;” our current system of severe sentencing and mandatory minimums gives prosecutors overwhelming power - power that was once in the hands of judges and juries - to the point that today less than 5% of criminal cases are resolved by a jury (3% in federal cases).

Prosecutorial discretion is not a mandate for prosecutors to apply fairness or common decency; it is simply the heuristic that determines who gets exposed to the system. There are no real restraints on our government’s ability to prosecute and jail. We have enough laws on the books and prosecutors and judges have enough discretion interpreting them, that anyone can be locked up for any reason or no reason. Take, for example, the case of Tarek Mehanna who, after refusing to become an FBI informant, was arrested, held for years in solitary confinement, and ultimately convicted as a “terrorist.” The substance of his crimes: sharing YouTube videos, and translating texts that were freely available on the Internet. Or look to Tim DeChrisopher or the Central Park Five; the list is unending and the point is clear: if prosecutors want to put you in jail, they can. It is also clear that there is no limit on our country's ability to incarcerate. The USA runs the largest penal system in world (our only competition in world history is the GULAG system of the USSR).

Thus, we are all criminals in waiting - a fact that is dramatic in the world of “cyber-crime,” where a typical Internet user is potentially liable for millions of dollars per day in copyright violations. The question then becomes, who is chosen for prosecution and why? If the feds just randomly prosecuted typical Internet users for violating “terms of service” agreements, which is what Aaron did, the popular backlash would be too great. So instead, they pick their targets carefully.

Minorities, the poor, and unpopular political factions are the traditional targets for prosecution and incarceration. If you are black and live in New York City, it is routine to be stopped by police and arrested for simply walking down the street in your neighborhood or even in the hallway of your own building. If you are Muslim, even a kindergartener, you are a threat and are subject to arbitrary police surveillance. If you are an animal rights activist, you are considered a “terrorist” even if you’re explicitly committed to non-violence. Conversely, if you are a rich, white banker, you can participate in the most egregious activity and never be jailed or even have to admit wrongdoing.

Internet freedom hacktivists have recently joined the ranks of Muslims, African Americans, the poor, and “eco-terrorists” as an acceptable target for the brutish American penal system. People like Aaron Swartz, Jeremy Hammond, Bradley Manning, and Andrew Auernheimer are increasingly being treated in the same way as people like Fred Hampton, Tarek Mehanna, and the SHAC Seven. This is happening because the corporate state has recognized that they possess democratic power and are a legitimate threat to the aims of the elite – remember Aaron Swartz was the crucial organizer in the successful fight against SOPA.

If we don’t want to see more people like Aaron martyred by our system, it is not enough to simply amend one (terrible) hacking law; the corporate state and its DOJ henchmen will just come back with another law. We have to recognize that Aaron was not alone. He is part of a long history of activists who’ve become too effective for the government to stand. In order to make a lasting change in this manifestly unjust “justice” system, we need to express the same outrage and dedicate the same time and resources toward abolishing all injustice that is done in our name. Reforming the incredibly broad Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) is a start, but it cannot be the goal. Abolishing the CFAA, mandatory minimums, the drug war, and the war on “terror” with the aim of dismantling the military and prison-industrial complex is necessary. We must remove corporate influence and replacing it with democratic (not Democratic) control of government, the Internet, and other institutions. We need to incorporate long term goals into our short term campaigns. This is exactly what Aaron did so effectively with his short life; let's honor his legacy by picking up the pace.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Abi Hassen

Abi Hassen is the new Mass Defense Coordinator of the National Lawyers Guild. Abi has a JD from New York University School of Law where he taught prison law classes at Arthur Kill Correctional Facility. He has a BS in computer science from the Evergreen State College. Before joining the National Office staff, Abi was an organizer for Connecticut Center for a New Economy and UNITE HERE where, among other work, he led a team of union members on a two-month voter registration and felon rights restoration drive in rural Virginia. Abi has developed and implemented web and social media outreach campaigns and provided IT/Tech support consulting in film production. Abi can be reached at abi@nlg.org.

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