The phrase that came to mind when I first saw the indictment against Swartz was Alexander Pope’s famous rhetorical question: “Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?” It would be possible to write off the Swartz prosecution (as some have done) as the action of a politically ambitious attorney general, but actually it fits a much more sinister pattern. It was clear that a decision had been made to make an example of this cheeky young hacker and in that sense this grotesque prosecution sits neatly alongside the treatment of Corporal Bradley Manning, not to mention the hysterical reaction of the US authorities to WikiLeaks.
What has happened, in fact, is that governments which since 9/11 have presided over the morphing of their democracies into national security states have realised that the internet represents a truly radical challenge to their authority, and they are absolutely determined to control it. They don’t declare this as their intention, of course, but instead talk up “grave” threats – cybercrime, piracy and (of course) child pornography – as rationales for their action. But, in the end, this is now all about control. And if a few eggheads and hackers get crushed on the way well, that’s too bad. RIP Aaron.