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Lawrence Lessig On Aaron Swartz
Aaron Swartz (AP/ThoughtWorks)

Aaron Swartz (AP/ThoughtWorks)

Computer prodigy Aaron Swartz, who helped develop RSS and co-founded Reddit, has been found dead weeks before he was to go on trial on federal charges that he stole millions of scholarly articles in an attempt to make them freely available to the public. Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig spoke to Tom about Swartz’s death and what he stood for. You can listen to the conversation here:


Lawrence Lessig, professor of law and leadership and director of the Center for Ethics at Harvard University. He was a friend of Aaron Swartz and at one point served as his lawyer. (@lessig)

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  • http://www.facebook.com/chuck.kollars Chuck Kollars

    When I was inside Silicon Valley startups in the early 80′s, they’d sometimes bring lawsuits agains each other out of simple personal animosity (ex: the “real”, never-mentioned reason might have been “you stole my girlfriend”). Many startups were forced out of business entirely: being made to spend all that time minding the law didn’t leave enough to mind the business. Even back then, us peons all knew that whoever had the deeper pockets (and thus could afford to hire more lawyers and to appeal more) would always win; justice and fairness had nothing to do with it. Using the legal system to harass people rather than to deliver justice unfortunately isn’t new.  Tying “job merit” (promotions, salary, etc.) to the number of successful cases brought may keep prosecutors on their toes, but it encourages this trend.

  • http://profiles.google.com/barry.kort Barry Kort

    The prosecution was apparently in the business of annihilation. Swartz faced spiritual annihilation and financial annihilation, with no viable means of escape. To my mind, our justice system is out of control. The prosecution took leave of their senses. Unfortunately, this kind of tragedy is all too commonplace, and most of the time goes unreported.

    The suicide of Aaron Swartz in the face of the appalling over-reach of unchecked discretionary prosecutorial power highlights a much larger problem that pervades our legal system. The entire US legal system (including criminal, civil, and family court divisions) is routinely used in an outrageously abusive manner. Those who are traumatized, stigmatized, or victimized by such shenanigans within the legal system may suffer what has come to be called Legal Abuse Syndrome.

  • http://read-write-blue.blogspot.com/ RWB

    This deserves much more attention.

    • http://profiles.google.com/barry.kort Barry Kort

      We need a national dialogue on the practice of piling on charges to coerce defendants into accepting unjust plea bargains.

  • Rachel Donsky

    What are the implications for proving the theory of evolution by bringing back a species we evolved from? 

  • MadMarkTheCodeWarrior

    Evidently there’s a lot of missunderstanding amongst the general public over what actually happened. I was glad to hear this side of the story. This was yet one more tragedy contributed to by the legal system run amok. Where are the checks and balances when you need them?

    • http://profiles.google.com/barry.kort Barry Kort

      The entire US legal system (including criminal, civil, and family court divisions) is routinely used in an outrageously abusive manner.

      Those who are traumatized, stigmatized, or victimized by such shenanigans within the legal system may suffer what has come to be called Legal Abuse Syndrome.

      In the field of Medicine, every proposed treatment or cure has to be carefully studied and reviewed to ensure that it has demonstrated therapeutic value, and does not inadvertently spread, exacerbate, or even cause the malady it sets out to treat. In the medical literature, a treatment is called “iatrogenic” if it is counter-productive to the primary objective of curing disease.

      The field of Law does not employ such safeguards, and as a result a substantial fraction of our public policies and practices, operating under the color of law, turn out to be iatrogenic — ineffective at best and counter-productive at worst.

      Alan Simpson, the retired Senator from Wyoming, spent some three decades in Congress, during which time he helped craft and enact a great deal of legislation. But after he retired, he remarked that during his tenure in Washington politics, he discovered a law, the way a scientist would discover a natural law. Simpson said he discovered the Law of Unintended Consequences, meaning that the actual outcome of legislation, passed in good faith with an expectation of curing one of society’s ills, frequently turned out to have unanticipated, unexpected, and undesirable consequences. In science, if one is relying on a theoretical model, and the actual outcome of an experiment does not jibe with that predicted by the model, one is obliged to discard the model as unreliable.

      Our governmental systems are rife with unreliable models which give rise to unwise practices, many of which are ineffective at best and counter-productive at worst. We have built governmental systems that lack viable safeguards against iatrogenic treatments of many of our most problematic social ills.

      Here is an example of the kind of scholarly article one might find on JSTOR (which recently relaxed its policies to make many more of them freely available without a costly institutional subscription).

      Punishment and Violence: Is the Criminal Law Based on One Huge Mistake? by James Gilligan, Harvard University; published in the Journal of Social Research, Fall 2000.


  • Allie Rhodes

    I hope it is ok to put this here but…I really enjoy reading the On Point Blog everyday but in my RSS Newsfeed the blog posts have not updated since December 17th. All of my other NPR RSS feeds are working.  

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/EJPSR7B6BVG2EXE56QLCTZZFKM Om Colasante

    I have a medical clinic that was raided and is “under investigation” in analogous fashion.  My reputation in the small town where I practice has been so marred that I can’t hire other physicians and nurse-practitioners, who are afraid of getting caught in the nasty web of DOJ investigations of doctors.  The investigation started two and a half years ago;  the raid occurred twenty months ago.  The government took all the money in my business and personal bank accounts, leaving no working capital to pay staff salaries or bills.  I have not been indicted and the reasons for the raid and forfeitures remain under seal–not even a day-long hearing before a judge succeeded in giving me one iota of information about why I am under investigation.  You would think that if I were committing criminal acts I should have a right to know, but our justice system has gone awry in cases like mine, and certainly in Swartz’s.  I closed my clinic two weeks ago, not because the government took my license or did anything direct, to make me close, but because I still don’t know what they’re doing, and I can’t staff the clinic as long as I look like a criminal, and because I’m disgusted.  Unfortunately, I am still young (50′s) and should have many years of practice left, and the country needs family doctors like me more than ever.  See my blog for more info:  solodocssolong.blogspot.com

  • http://twitter.com/humanabilityusa Humanability

    The depth of this tragedy continues to amaze me as more information is shared with the public. We cannot comprehend what changes Aaron could have made to improve our society and government if he’d been allowed to continue sharing his gifts with us. I hope those who read this article will take the opportunity to support Aaron’s work at Demand Progress (.org), including its current initiative to stop CISPA 2.0, which is the newest version of SOPA, and designed to maximize profit at the expense of sharing information.

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