Aaron Swartz's legacy was already guaranteed, even at 26: He helped create Reddit and RSS, which distributes content over the Internet.
But his suicide by hanging Friday has also stoked a politically malignant aftermath for the prosecutors pursuing 13 felony charges against him in a trial that was set to begin in a month. Some said his death could be a watershed moment in the ongoing intellectual property debate over the things people share and create, and how they share and create them.
Swartz, an open-Internet advocate who had struggled with depression, was facing decades of prison time and charges that included wire fraud for downloading millions of articles from JSTOR, a nonprofit academic database with a paywall. JSTOR declined to press charges, but prosecutors, led by Massachusetts U.S. Atty. Carmen Ortiz, moved the case forward.
"Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney's office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims."
Carmen Ortiz was being a bully, trying to make an example out of Swartz. She didn't kill him, but she wasn't trying to simply punish him, either; she was throwing an egregious decades-long prison term at him to prove a point. Now Ortiz is getting what she had coming: People are making an example out of her. It's a reputation Ortiz deserves as a lesson to other prosecutors (and every US attorney and US Department of Justice employee) that being overzealous in their official capacity, with all the backing of law, can result in being saddled with personal lifelong disgrace. Even prosecutors should balk, protest, or quit when the job asks them to do something immoral.