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America suffers from a severe case of cronyism. Politicians and bureaucrats routinely pass legislation and write regulation designed to favor pet industries and block, bully or bludgeon opposing businesses. By interfering with competition, they distort the free market landscape and sacrifice innovative talent to entrenched interest. But while the economic costs of cronyism are palpably obvious, the human toll is often less apparent. Not so in the case of Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz, a man who personified the entrepreneurial spirit of America’s tech industry. His tragic suicide last Friday after months of federal persecution illustrates the tragic consequences of a government utterly beholden to its corporate cronies.
At 26, Aaron had already accomplished more than most of us hope for in a lifetime. Along with his Reddit credentials, he authored the original RSS specification, the program that makes automatic online updates possible. He was deeply involved in creating workable alternatives to copyright licenses and founded Demand Progress, an activist group fighting federal overregulation of the Internet. A prodigy to his professors and a rock star to the tech community, Aaron was an unstoppable font of creativity with a luminous future ahead of him.
Unfortunately his fame also attracted some unwanted attention. Eighteen months ago, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz indicted Aaron for downloading millions of academic articles from the JSTOR database, felony “hacking” charges that carried a 26 year prison sentence and no hope of a plea bargain. The case was an absolute farce; the MIT network he used to download the articles had unlimited access to the JSTOR database, he employed simple computing techniques and made no effort to hide his tracks, and JSTOR itself asked the federal government to drop the charges against him. Many have compared the case to indicting someone for checking out too many books from a library. But for Aaron, who battled crippling depression for much of his life, the stress of possible jail time and the relentless bullying by federal prosecutors may have been too much to handle. Aaron’s family released a statement describing his death as “the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.”
Why would the Feds saddle a bright young man with such bogus charges? Despite his tremendous following, Aaron was not universally admired. A longtime supporter of copyright law reform, he earned the ire of the entertainment industry by rallying his Demand Progress coalition against laws designed to limit internet creativity under the guise of copyright enforcement. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) attacked Aaron and his organization on more than one occasion, most recently during last January’s fight over the unsuccessful Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). Industry giants wanted to make an example of someone, and instructed their lackeys at the Justice Department to target one of the most effective advocates against internet censorship.
It’s an admittedly outrageous charge, and nobody yet knows for sure what role the entertainment industry played in pressuring Justice to aggressively pursue this case. But it wouldn’t be the first time the Feds overreached in their rush to please powerful media interests. Take the case of Derek Khanna, a staffer with the House of Representatives’ Republican Study Committee. Late last year, he wrote a policy brief that methodically dismantled entertainment industry myths on copyright law. Released by the Committee on a Friday, it was withdrawn barely twenty-four hours later following a firestorm from industry lobbyists. Khanna himself was fired a few weeks later. He later indicated his surprise at the “level of backlash [the brief] received from the content industry.” What’s truly surprising is the deference Republican politicians accord to lobbyists hell-bent on burying creative solutions to a pressing policy problem.
When it comes to bending over backwards to please entertainment industry interests, however, Immigration and Customs Enforcement takes the cake. In the summer of 2010 ICE began “Operation In Our Sites,” a massive on-going action seizing internet domain names accused of copyright infringement. The legal and constitutional problems with the operation are so extensive they require their own piece, but for our purposes it makes sense to examine the case of one particular domain name, the rap music blog Dajaz1.com. When it was seized by federal law enforcement in late 2010, ICE agents alleged that four unauthorized music tracks had been placed on the site for illegal download. That information had come courtesy of the Recording Industry Association of America, which routinely provides ICE with “evidence” of online copyright infringement. Although the owner of Dajaz1 displayed e-mails showing that the tracks had come from talent agents or the artists themselves, the Justice Department refused to budge. Denying all due process, they gave themselves a series of secret extensions in court to give the RIAA more time to present its (nonexistent) evidence. One year after the initial seizure, the Feds decided to drop the case, returning the Dajaz1 domain name without an apology for the harm they wrought on the owner’s business and reputation. If the Feds are comfortable with trampling the rights of a law-abiding citizen in an effort to address the delusional concerns of the RIAA, they are certainly capable of over-prosecuting a talented young man who ended up on the entertainment industry’s black list.
If Aaron’s life symbolized the dynamism of America’s tech industry, his death is a disturbing metaphor for the danger cronyism represents to that industry and to all economic opportunity. Allowing corporate interests to dictate policies without regard to due process or human decency is a perversion of free-market capitalism. Though bullied and battered, America’s entrepreneurial spirit still clings to life. If left unchecked, however, the weight of cronyism and federal overreach may prove too much to bear.
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