Commentary

Intent on Understanding

Aaron Swartz, the American programmer and Internet activist who committed suicide on January 11, was not one to act with poor intentions. Having co-developed the technology behind the RSS feed at the age of 14, Swartz later took his passion for the Internet to the political sphere and founded DemandProgress.org to protest internet censorship bills, according to “Aaron Swartz Commits Suicide,” published by “The Tech.” In 2011, Swartz was arrested for allegedly stealing millions of documents from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Swartz faced a possible 35 years in prison and immense pressure from prosecutors, all of which may have led to his suicide. Such a harsh sentence to Swartz’s behavior was completely unreasonable, considering his intention for stealing the material was to distribute it freely, according to the “New York Times” article, “Internet Activist, a Creator of RSS, Is Dead at 26, Apparently a Suicide.” In comparison, Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State football coach, received a minimum sentence of 30 years in prison. He was convicted of 45 separate cases of child sexual abuse last year. While Swartz simply stole online material, Sandusky was convicted of molesting 10 young boys. How could a more drastic crime receive a lesser sentence? When forming judgements, the greater intentions of the accused must be considered. While people’s actions can suggest their character, misunderstanding the motives behind actions can lead to misjudgment. Consider Swartz: not knowing his intentions, one might have assumed Swartz was just a criminal. Yes, what he did was wrong and demanded retribution, but after understanding his intentions, 35 years in prison and excessive prosecution seems an inappropriate response. Swartz was gifted with an tremendous understanding of technology and the Internet. His intention was to change the way information was distributed and, consequently, to change the world. His prosecution and suicide have stirred up debate in the media, most of which criticizes what Swartz’s family calls “prosecutorial overreach” involved in the case, according to CNN. David Segal of DemandProgress.org said, “This [situation] makes no sense. It’s like trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library,” according to the “Wired” article, “Feds Charge Activist as Hacker for Downloading Millions of Academic Articles.” Swartz believed that the articles should be universally accessible, and acted accordingly. While Swartz’s intentions were positive, his actions were not. He broke laws. He wasn’t just “checking out library books,” as Segal put it. People had a right to be upset, and rightly held him accountable for trespassing and disrespecting authority, certain copyright regulations and ownership rights. Whether one thinks he deserved the prosecution or not, however, Swartz found himself targeted for things that he did not intend. I ask that when we remember Swartz, we remember his true intentions. Swartz intended to leave a positive impact on the world. He left us with new technologies and a call for Internet activism. The unfortunate events that led to his death serve only to distract from his motives; let us not forget them. Ada Li is a two-year Lower from Reading, MA.