Christian Stork: The Megalomania of Aaron Swartz Prosecutor Carmen Ortiz


Massachusetts District U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz (Courtesy: Wikipedia)
Massachusetts District U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

WASHINGTON — In a not-so-stirring defense of academic conglomerate JSTOR, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz said of Aaron Swartz‘s offenses, “Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars. It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away.” While common sense and lore would tend to at least lend more sympathy to Robin Hood- or Jean Valjean-type characters, who might be at least functioning out of some concern for others, Ms. Ortiz remained steadfast in her pursuit of recent “an Hero” Mr. Swartz, trying to see him put in jail for potentially the rest of his life.

Over at WhoWhatWhy Christian Stork does a nice little breakdown of this U.S. attorney’s wading into murky waters of civil asset forfeiture, one particular case in which she agreed to help confiscate a rundown, mom-and-pop Massachusetts motel because because “from 2001 to 2008, .05 [percent of at least 125,000 visitors] were arrested for drug crimes on the property.” This was a theft just like Aaron Swartz’s. Except not it was not a theft in the high-minded name of educating the world’s downtrodden, but in that of fattening the pockets of law enforcement agencies, treating poor drug abusers as criminals, alongside those who might dare house them.

Mr. Stork paints a disturbing picture of a civil asset forfeiture system in which being in debt vis-a-vis a mortgage — meaning that a bank, and its lawyers, has some has some skin in the game — means that the owners of this motel would have been in an even better position to disavow their affiliation with three handfuls of guest drug offenses. But alas they ran out of lawyer money, and the government all at once took five decades of family property worth $1.5 million.

Mr. Stork also outlines a direct financial, not an external ethical, motive for law enforcement to take on these kinds of civil asset forfeitures. He cites the testimony of a DEA agent claiming that federal attorneys never go after anything with less than $50,000 in equity. Additionally, local law enforcement, for cooperating with the feds, can look to take home up to 80 percent of what was seized. That’s a major incentive to turn a blind eye to a violation of property rights. In fact it’s more of an incentive to turn a blind eye to property-rights violations than the Pirate Party ever had: It’s money straight to the bank!

The same prosecutor, Carmen Ortiz, who sought to lock up Aaron Swartz for his failure to respect property rights of the proprietors of academic information also sought to seize a family’s business because an extreme minority of their clientele used drugs. Mr. Stork’s article makes clear that this was ultimately the DEA’s initiative, with Ms. Ortiz simply acting as its lawyer. But that doesn’t change that this U.S. attorney lacks any consistency in her modus operandi. It’s pretty obvious that the low rates for staying at this establishment, Motel Caswell, made it an even more tempting target.

Ms. Ortiz’s office released a statement about the seizure, saying: “The government believed that this was an important case . . . because of the deterrent message it sends to others who may turn a blind eye to crime occurring at their place of business.” But Mr. Stork shows this is shmoax because local crime rates dictate that there would have been just as much of a rationale for seizing nearby Walmart, Home Depot, Applebees, Motel 6 and IHOP. But those are large businesses, and no matter how many people shoot up or each other inside, they’ll have the lawyers to keep the whomever or the DEA at bay.

Aaron Swartz was Murdered

Aaron Swartz killed himself after the sudden realization he was a "macfag."
Murderers of Aaron Swartz tried to disguise his death as a suicide.

NEW YORK — After reports of Aaron Swartz’s apparent suicide circulated around the Internet this weekend, investigators found evidence of foul play. A former architect of Reddit, the online forum scandalized earlier this year by child pornography and “creepshots,” Aaron Swartz was widely known for his contributions to anti-copyright activism after stealing millions of files from MIT.

Hackers from Anonymous released a statement on Sunday, “Heavy-handed prosecutors raped the beautiful mind of Aaron Swartz. He later ‘killed himself.’ Are the draconian copyright laws selectively applied to those who threaten the inertia of entrenched power? Certainly. Will they use their sockpuppets and judicial torture system to make YOU kill yourself too? Of course. Will they kill you if you go too far?”

Chronicle Reporters also questioned Julian Assange, sick from months of exile in the Ecuadorean embassy, about the death of Aaron Swartz. “I am not convinced that Aaron Swartz was such a coward he committed suicide due to fear of prison,” said Mr. Assange. “Read his words, and decide for yourself, but I believe Swartz was murdered by a team of copyright assassins who made it all look like a simple suicide. Watch what you say, or you may end up like Aaron Swartz.”

Swartz gave a talk in 2008, mentioning his intention to ” download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks.”

Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You’ll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier.

There are those struggling to change this. The Open Access Movement has fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it. But even under the best scenarios, their work will only apply to things published in the future. Everything up until now will have been lost.

That is too high a price to pay. Forcing academics to pay money to read the work of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries but only allowing the folks at Google to read them? Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It’s outrageous and unacceptable.

“I agree,” many say, “but what can we do? The companies hold the copyrights, they make enormous amounts of money by charging for access, and it’s perfectly legal — there’s nothing we can do to stop them.” But there is something we can, something that’s already being done: we can fight back.

Those with access to these resources — students, librarians, scientists — you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not — indeed, morally, you cannot — keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download requests for friends.

Meanwhile, those who have been locked out are not standing idly by. You have been sneaking through holes and climbing over fences, liberating the information locked up by the publishers and sharing them with your friends.

But all of this action goes on in the dark, hidden underground. It’s called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn’t immoral — it’s a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy.

Large corporations, of course, are blinded by greed. The laws under which they operate require it — their shareholders would revolt at anything less. And the politicians they have bought off back them, passing laws giving them the exclusive power to decide who can make copies.

There is no justice in following unjust laws. It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.

We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.

With enough of us, around the world, we’ll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge — we’ll make it a thing of the past. Will you join us?

Aaron Swartz
July 2008, Eremo, Italy