When stealing isn’t stealing - The most disturbing part of the Aaron Swartz story

Probably the most disturbing thing to me about the Aaron Swartz tragedy is this statement in 2011 from US Attorney Carmen Ortiz:

“Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.”

That is teaching our children that the law is always correct and that discretion should not be used when enforcing the law. It’s teaching our children not to question what they are being told by those in power. Had the American fore-fathers believed that “treason is treason” then the United States would have never had its Revolution and founding.

There is no physical law that governs the Universe that outlines stealing, killing, lying, etc. These are human fabrications to govern us as a society, tribe, and culture. We equally have the capacity to dictate when stealing isn’t stealing, or when an act of treason is the right thing to do as the American fore-founders discovered. That is how we advance as a  civilization.

There is a tremendous difference between stealing for personal gain, and “stealing” [1] to release academic papers paid for with tax-payer money. A true leader would recognize that. It’s been reported that Carmen Ortiz had political ambitions to one day run as Governor of Massachusetts. Is that the kind of leader a state would want? A false leader who doesn’t recognize when an act has morally justified grounds? A real leader would act to make changes, not throw the book at someone.

MIT should be ashamed as well, whether they were actively pressing charges or passively standing by [reports are conflicted over this]. MIT as well is supposed to be leading us. In the past they were one of the first universities to offer free and open classroom lessons online. Here, they failed miserably to lead by example that academic research should be made open.

The Aaron Swartz story is bigger than just a 26 year-old doing some computer hijinks and getting bent-over by those in a position of power. It’s even bigger than the importance of Open Access to academic research. It’s surfacing some major issues that we have in society in both the U.S. and beyond about true leadership [note: I am a US citizen currently residing in London, UK]. Ortiz was put into a position to use her discretion. Instead, she let her ambitions dictate Aaron’s fate.

At the end of the day, if it is against the law to steal whether morally motivated or not, then you’ve broken the law. Laws can be changed though. New countries can be formed. And leaders in power can use their discretion to apply fair judgment, not to further their own ambitions. Where have all the true leaders gone?


1. Note that Aaron wasn’t even technically stealing in terms of the law, at most it was breach of contract [according to several reports].