On Monday, the U.S. government dropped its charges against Aaron Swartz following his suicide. Swartz was charged in 2011 with illegally downloading 4.8 million academic papers from the digital database JSTOR over MIT‘s network using fake credentials.

For that, Swartz faced up to 35 years in prison and up to $1 million in fines.

Since he died before the case went to trial, the feds dismissed the case according to standard procedure.

Swartz has been fondly remembered as a brilliant programmer, activist, leader and folk hero, not to mention a beloved human being. But in considering the crimes with which he was charged, try to leave aside the many things that made Swartz exceptional. He was simply a citizen of a country proud of its freedom of information.

If Swartz did what he was accused of doing, he committed a crime. But that crime was essentially victimless. No profits or royalties or other material value is destroyed by the theft of academic articles. Yes, it would be against the law of the land. But what is the appropriate punishment for this crime?

A Victimless Crime

As Lawrence Lessig points out, JSTOR itself decided it was appropriate not to pursue any charges. It asked the feds to drop the case. Then it gradually opened its stance on freedom of information, opening its public-domain articles to anyone. It also created a test program giving access to 4.5 million articles — a trove nearly as large as the one Swartz was charged with stealing — available to anyone who signs up for a free account.

While it’s not fair to speculate about Swartz’s motivations to commit the alleged crime, he was certainly known as a champion of free and open access to information of this sort. While JSTOR is a closed database, a privilege of the academy, it has come around to some of these ideas in recent years.

And yet MIT, the institution through which the files were downloaded, took a harder line against it, and U.S. attorney Carmen M. Ortiz continued her prosecution of Swartz, aiming to lock him away for most of his life and ruin him financially. For someone devoted to rearranging the world and its social order through the sharing of information, this dogged persecution must have been impossible to understand.

Overreaching Prosecution

Alex Stamos, CTO of Artemis Internet and an expert witness for the defense in United States v. Aaron Swartz wrote just after Swartz’s death that “I know a criminal hack when I see it, and Aaron’s downloading of journal articles from an unlocked closet is not an offense worth 35 years in jail.”

Swartz’s family and partner wrote a statement after his suicide that shows the impact the vicious prosecution had on him and those around him:

Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.

In the wake of the tragedy, thousands of Americans have signed a petition calling for U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz to be removed from office.

On Sunday, MIT announced it would launch an internal investigation into the matter. And on Monday, in one emotionless sentence, Ortiz “respectfully submitted” her dismissal of the case. With the painful example of Aaron Swartz in mind, one hopes our society will learn more respect for the difference between a crime of information theft and a crime with victims.

Lead image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the articles allegedly downloaded by Swartz ended up on The Pirate Bay file-sharing site. The JSTOR articles posted on The Pirate Bay were shared in protest of the charges against Swartz, but they were not from the same collection.