01/14/2013 02:32 pm ET | Updated Mar 16, 2013

Hackers for Right, We Are One Down

A bright young American hacker who suffered from bouts of depression and chronic illness ended his life a few days ago. He was facing up to 50 years in jail for downloading a cache of academic journal articles from JSTOR, the scholarly archive that allowed an unlimited number of downloads by anybody on MIT's network. He did not "hack" JSTOR's website, nor did he cause any negative effect on either JSTOR or MIT. Aaron's actions, viewed as illegal by the prosecution, were wholly undeserving of the 50-year sentence they sought, not to mention the ordeal of an expensive trial. Many feel the prosecution was a witch hunt.

As news of his suicide propagated swiftly online, the Internet was awash in outpourings of grief from friends and admirers. This came as no surprise. While conducting ethnographic research on computer hackers and open source software, I met Aaron Swartz various times, the first when he was 14 and his accomplishments were striking. He crafted Internet technologies, he chartered a nonprofit, and took direct action in releasing information he felt the public had a right to access.

Yesterday's outpouring however exceeded commemoration. The dismay against his government was searing. His family and partner putting it in no uncertain terms on their blog: "Aaron's death... is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach."

When it comes to hacking, this sort of overreach is nothing extraordinary. In some cases, such as that of Kevin Mitnick, where multiple crimes were indisputably committed, the punishment was excessive considering that he did not benefit financially nor cause any permanent damage from his online explorations. Nevertheless, because he was a "hacker," the Department of Justice jailed him for four years in pre-trial confinement, eight months in solitary confinement. Such harsh treatment was necessary because law enforcement officials convinced the judge that Mitnick could "start a nuclear war by whistling into a pay phone." Other cases, such as the one involving Craig Neidorf can only be described as bizarre. In 1990, Neidorf, then editor of an e-zine Phrack, faced three decades in jail for distributing a Bell South telephone manual, a book one could get at the library. So astounding was his plight, it helped spur the founding of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, its lawyers since defending scores of hackers against state prosecution. To take a more recent example, the United States sought to extradite British hacker Gary McKinnon for exploring American military computers in his quixotic quest for information on covert alien research. He faced up to 60 years in jail for his attempts to access machines. In October of 2012 the British government terminated the decade long extradition case on human rights grounds as officials were convinced by medical reports McKinnon might end his life if sent to the US.

But Aaron's case stands apart in an unique way. While part of a thriving culture of geeks, free software advocates, and Internet activists in Cambridge, San Francisco, and New York, he was a hacker, but not the type who is part of the so-called "hacker underground," like Mitnick once was. While these hackers often find transgression pleasurable, they are not always politically motivated. On the contrary, Swartz was foremost an activist. He had gained the admiration of Internet giants like Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig and the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee. In fact, Berners-Lee wrote one of the most eloquent notes about Aaron. Upending convention, as all hackers are inclined to do, he described the youthful Swartz as a wise elder:

"Aaron dead.

Wanderers in this crazy world,

we have lost a mentor, a wise elder.

Hackers for right, we are one down,

we have lost one of our own."

Perhaps it was this rare combination of conviction, brilliance, and public support, which made Swartz so threatening. A well-respected hacker, he was willing to wield technical skills as a political tool.

What is clear from all these examples is that the U.S. government criminalizes hacking under all circumstances, unwilling to differentiate between criminal activities, playful pursuits, and political causes. As the public confronts the tragic loss of that astonishing hacker, who for too short of a time poured his soul into making the world a better place, who improved everyone's life who uses the Internet, maybe this time we can see a different side to hackers. Maybe now we can begin the slow but necessary process of transforming perceptions of hackers and reform the existing statutes which enable prosecutors to seek long jail sentences for "crimes,"such as violating a website's terms of service. Maybe now we can start to appreciate, instead of criminalize, those bright kids who are doing things that we depend on, that often make our lives better, and are undaunted by powerful people trying to stop them.