Aaron Swartz: RIP
I never met Aaron nor do I use Reddit. Once in a while I ran into JSTOR online – the database he is accused of hacking - and I do appreciate his involvement in RSS. In other words, I am an indirect beneficiary of the people like him who shaped the Internet. I am part of the Internet “crowd.”
To us this story matters – but much more profoundly than your average politician understands. I say this because politicians want to amend the law they used to go after him - a felony with a 35 year sentence for a relatively harmless computer crime. That’s a good start but not what this is about.
Aaron ran afoul of the one group where the crowd couldn’t matter less - political appointees. The US Attorney General had every legal right in the world to go after him. There are always more pressing issues but if you want to make a name in a tech town like Boston you go after a highly visible tech crime. They had a specific law on their side but with their unchecked discretion they can always find some law and unless you a rich and powerful you’re in trouble.
Homeland Security might call this asymmetrical warfare. The Feds have unlimited resources and you have your piggy bank.
This is the gray area of politics where the real work is done. The feedback loop of the Internet has yet to penetrate this world. Both Democrats and Republicans use this and it is really part of the PermaGov – a combination of unreachable Civil Servants and government appointees that do the real work of government outside the easy reach of the voting public.
This is why bankers responsible for the housing crash never wind up in jail. Yet, I sat in a jury where 4 Federal agents and a prominent Federal judge put a street corner hustler away for conning $18,000 out of the mortgage system. The bank that made millions selling its junk to Lehman actually got to testify against him. This is why Henry Paulson earmarked $60+ billion of TARP money to AIG just so it could pay its debt obligation to his alma mater, Goldman Sachs.
You didn’t get to vote on any of that.
So the real issue is, when will the “crowd” get to penetrate those sacred enclaves of government?
This is part of a Social Contract drawn up before there was mass media, let alone the Internet. Smart politicians who know how to work this system know this is where democracy can be sidestepped. It is part of what allowed politicians like Nancy Pelosi to make a fortune through legalized insider trading.
So, if Aaron is to count and you are willing to confront real power, this is where it starts. You petition every government agency to be exposed, open to public review and approval.
Think of what happened when the Journal News published the names and addresses of every gun owner in the lower Hudson Valley. Now imagine what would happen if the public got to vote on the prosecutorial discretion of the DOJ? Or that the function and decisions along with the salary and performance of government officials were part of the public feedback loop?
That would just be the beginning and it would make Occupy Wall Street look like a picnic. It would also be a fitting response to the sad demise of this pioneer.
If Aaron Swartz is a martyr - it is to Government 2.0.