Slacktivism that may actually help

Normally, I'm not that much of a fan of the slacktivist trend of signing pre-canned petitions, signing things that political organizations send in the mail, and so forth. It takes very little effort and therefore carries very little weight. A lot of those efforts are more exercises in helping the signers feel better about themselves. But there is the occasional exception.

Most of you probably already know about the death of Aaron Swartz. For those who aren't familiar, see Larry Lessig's article. Swartz suffered from depression (and, seriously, fuck depression — it's an awful, horrible disease), but there's little doubt that the ongoing federal prosecution using the full weight of the US district attorney's office to hound him for what amounts to political trespassing was part of what led to his suicide.

As it happens, I personally believe that Swartz committed a crime, and probably should have paid some consequence for it (on the order of a fine or some community service). Hooking your devices up to someone else's network without their permission and messing around in their wiring closets (locked or not) is, for me, akin to traipsing into someone's barn or backyard shed without their permission and using some of their tools because you want to use them. And whether or not one likes the current copyright regime (and I don't like it at all), MIT is still in the awkward position of having to work with it. Abusing their license for your political goals is effectively recruiting them into your activism without their permission, and as I've mentioned before, I have a mild obsession with consent.

It was a crime. However, it was a minor crime, and that's where this whole situation went completely off the rails. One aspect of a justice system is fairness: uniform application of the laws to everyone. However, another aspect of a justice system is proportionality: punishments that fit the crime. Without ever having been convicted, Swartz was already punished completely out of proportion to what he actually did, both financially and emotionally, by prosecution by the US attorney that went far, far beyond zealous into actively abusive. This despite the fact that the owner of the academic papers that he was downloading as an act of open access activism stated they did not want the case to proceed and asked the US government to drop the charges.

I don't think what Swartz did was right, or legal. However, the correct reaction was "look, involuntarily recruiting MIT as an accomplice to your act of civil disobedience is not okay — don't ever do that again." Not "you are evil and should be locked up in prison for 35 years." And I'm completely fed up with the disproportionality of our justice system and the practice of ridiculous over-charging of crimes in an attempt to terrify people into bad plea bargains.

Which brings me to the slacktivism. This is exactly the sort of situation where popular opinion matters. US attorneys who have lost the faith and support of the population they serve won't keep their jobs. And no one in government particularly wants this case to be splashed across the front pages, or to have to answer questions about the appropriateness or proportionality of the prosecution while people are mourning a dead young man. If we make it clear enough to the Obama administration that people are watching, that this matters, and that we're angry about it, not only is it quite likely there will be consequences for this prosecutor, but it may serve as a deterrant for other prosecutors in the future.

There is a petition on WhiteHouse.Gov to remove the district attorney for prosecutorial overreach, and for once taking five minutes to create an account and clicking on a petition may be both useful and appropriate. Taking disciplinary action here is, unlike with a lot of petitions, something that the Obama administration can actually do, directly, without involving the rest of the dysfunctional US government, and without making new law. If you are a US citizen, please consider going to this site and signing it to say that this matters to you and you believe this prosecution was excessive and inappropriate.

Please note: you do not have to believe that Swartz died solely or even primarily because of this prosecution to do this. We'll never really know the complex factors behind his death. But this was a burden that he shouldn't have had to deal with.

Please also note that you do not have to think he was justified in his behavior to sign this petition. This is not a question of whether what he did should be legal or was ethical. Rather, even assuming it was illegal, it's a question of appropriate punishment and proportionality of response. Whether or not you agree with his political cause, there simply was not enough damage done, to anyone, to warrant this kind of aggressive prosecution. And the direct victims agreed, which was the point at which the district attorney should have scaled way back on their actions or dropped the matter entirely.

Not doing so was an abuse of office and position, and that should have consequences.

ETA: Corrected "taking" to "using" in the analogy about tools. I was actually thinking "taking and then returning" when I wrote that, but only the first word made it into the post, and ended up creating a confusing parallel with theft that wasn't intended.

Posted: 2013-01-13 09:57 — Why no comments?

Last spun 2022-02-06 from thread modified 2020-05-10