The recent suicide of Aaron Swartz, open-internet activist and the genius behind RSS and Reddit, has left many people questioning the legitimacy of copyright laws and selective, overzealous prosecutions.
Swartz faced up to 35 years in prison if found guilty of violating a handful of laws protecting intellectual property after he was accused of what some have called “liberating” academic papers from JSTOR’s paywall and making them available to the general public.
But I haven’t heard anyone bring up what to me is the unavoidable conclusion Swartz’s potential prosecution leads us to. I believe Swartz’ case demonstrates how all prosecutions meant to make examples out of people are dehumanizing and wrong.
First things first. People are not examples. People are people. Sacrificing 35 years of a person’s life, whether that person was a brilliant contributor to society like Swartz or just an unlucky soul, to try to deter people from breaking a law that is by and large unenforceable is a moral outrage and shouldn’t be tolerated in a civil society.
For any prosecution to serve as an “example” to potential offenders, most offenders must be avoiding prosecution. No one should have to live in a society where they can’t know whether they will be prosecuted for breaking laws. If they cannot assume that they will, the prosecutor needs to do his or her job better, or the laws need to be changed so that they’re able to be uniformly upheld.
What should never happen in the face of a lazy prosecutor or hard-to-enforce laws is that random unlucky people become victims of extraordinarily severe consequences after breaking laws they reasonably assumed wouldn’t be enforced.