The recent suicide of prominent hacker and activist Aaron Swartz, who was faced with the possibility of an extensive prison sentence for an entirely harmless act, has prompted much commentary from politicians and the wider community. His family lay the blame firmly at the feet of the government, claiming that their culture of “intimidation and prosecutorial overreach” was the cause of Aaron’s death. There have been petitions to the White House to remove the officials responsible for the charges, and proposals to amend the law such that violating the acceptable usage policy of a website — which can include such innocuous activities as creating a Hotmail account under a false name — does not result in criminal sanctions.
Stupid laws and their overzealous enforcement is not a problem unique to the US. Prosecutors in the UK, for example, are fond of regulating online speech by employing nebulous legal concepts like “grossly offensive” or “insulting”, in some cases resulting in custodial sentences despite the lack of any actual harm. In Australia there have been convictions over illegal images of cartoon characters — despite being fictional and only vaguely humanoid, Bart Simpson is apparently still a “child” in need of “protection” from dangerous thought criminals. Even this pales into insignificance alongside the third-world kangaroo courts which hand out death sentences for homosexuals and adultery charges for rape victims like they are still in the 14th century.
As a campaigner for online freedom, Aaron Swartz would have been deeply familiar with the propaganda, back-room dealing and pandering to emotion that results in such legal insanities. With his programmer’s capacity for abstraction, he would have understood that the endless power-grabs and supine servitude to the whims of corporate puppet-masters are universal problems with the political system to which there is no easy solution. Even after the initial victory against SOPA, he must have realised that an entire lifetime of activism would hardly stem the flow of ignorant and censorious policy-making. Perhaps he reached the obvious conclusion, implicitly acknowledged by every authoritarian regime that outlaws suicide, that only the dead have seen the end of oppression.
We will never truly know why Aaron Swartz took his own life; despite the conclusion drawn by his supporters, he might well have killed himself irrespective of his legal difficulties. But it seems plausible that rather than an act of fear or desperation, his suicide was actually a statement — the most powerful statement any human can make — that spending another sixty years under the omnipresent thumb of the idiocracy was simply not an acceptable option.