Fed Pursuit of Hacktivist Aaron Swartz vs. Pursuit of Big Banks Highlights Tragic Imbalance


The theft of a few million articles from academic journals can carry a sentence of 35 years in prison.

Meanwhile, big banks can rig interest rates affecting the entire global economic system, launder money for international drug cartels, illegally foreclose on the homes of millions of Americans, and ultimately walk away with a slap-on-the-wrist for endangering the economic well-being of entire countries and hemispheres.

The family of internet activist and Reddit Co-founder Aaron Swartz, who was found dead in his Crown Heights apartment in Brooklyn on Friday, partially blames the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s Office for the apparent suicide.

“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,” the family said in a statement this weekend. “Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial [sic] overreach. ”

Take a step back for a minute and really think about the level of imbalance and hypocrisy we’re witnessing here. Federal authorities pursued, down to the last letter of the law, a guy whose life-long mission it was to promote the open flow of information in cyber-space and society at-large.

Swartz’s impending piracy trial threatened to shatter his entire existence. He faced 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine for allegedly downloading nearly 5 million articles from the non-profit digital library database, JSTOR, via Massachusetts Institute of Technology computers.

It’s understandable that not everyone will condone some of the methods Swartz used to promote his vision of an open internet, others might even agree that his actions at MIT justifiably warranted legal action.

But, no one can logically argue that Swartz deserved to face such serious prosecution — not in light of the relatively menial punishments given to big banks in recent months for their involvement in scandals of infinitely more heinous proportions than the piracy of academic journals.

Last Monday, 10 banks including Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citibank, JPMorgan Chase and MetLife Bank settled with the Federal Reserve and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency for a combined $8.5 billion for engaging in shady loan practices.

The banks were accused of instituting a practice called “robo-signing,” where they would sign off on the foreclosure of homes that they couldn’t actually prove they owned mortgages for. For criminal practices that affected millions upon million of Americans, the feds granted the banks and their executives immunity from criminal prosecution.

In December we reported on the $1.9 billion settlement that HSBC Bank reached with federal authorities, for its involvement in the laundering of at least $800 million in Mexican drug cartel money and sanctioned Iranian money.

This involves the same illicit drug trade that we’re supposedly waging war against and the same Iran that our government has imposed economic sanctions on and courted conflict with for years. For its involvement in ridiculously criminal activity, the feds granted the bank and its executives immunity from criminal prosecution.

And, in perhaps the greatest financial scandal in modern history, UBS Bank and Barclays Bank settled with U.S. and British authorities over their involvement in the Libor rate-fixing scandal. UBS and Barclays were a part of a larger group of banks responsible for setting global interest rates based on the interest rate the banks used to borrow from one another.

The group of banks knowingly fixed rates which didn’t accurately reflect the actual interest rate in order to generate greater profits. Barclays settled with U.S. and British authorities for more than $400 million in June and UBS settled for $1.5 billion towards the end of December. For their very blatant misdeeds, authorities granted the banks and its executives immunity from criminal prosecution.

In contrast to standard dealings with the big banks, the feds decided to push for the conviction of Swartz despite the fact that JSTOR, the actual victim of the crime here — if there truly is one, asked that the charges be dropped.

“[JSTOR] declined to pursue their own action against Aaron, and they asked the government to drop its [pursuit],” Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard University professor and friend of Swartz, wrote on his blog. “MIT, to its great shame, was not as clear, and so the prosecutor had the excuse he needed to continue his war against the ‘criminal’ who we who loved him knew as Aaron.”

MIT has since released a statement to investigate any role it may have had in motivating the suicide. Lessig, whom Swartz helped build intellectual licensing website Creative Commons, also pointed out the glaring imbalance in what our government chooses to pursue and not pursue.

“We live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White House,” he wrote. “And, where even those brought to ‘justice’ never even have to admit any wrongdoing, let alone be labeled ‘felons.'”