Statement – “Free” Guru Larry Lessig Should Condemn the Alleged Actions of Aaron Swartz

by Mike Wendy on July 20, 2011

Miami, July 20, 2011 – MediaFreedom calls on free culture guru, Larry Lessig, to condemn the alleged actions of protégé Aaron Swartz, the latter being indicted in federal court for stealing millions of documents from MIT in an ostensible effort to free that information.

Aaron Swartz & Larry Lessig, circa 2002 (source: wikipedia)

Though all individuals have free will, Lessig’s effect on Swartz – who was a fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard, directed by Lessig – is well documented.   And there’s another connection: Lessig’s pointed criticism of JSTOR, the object of Swartz’s alleged poaching, as noted in this presentation before CERN in April.

If Swartz did what he’s accused of, could Lessig’s long-held views and activism have pushed Swartz over the top?  Who knows?  Of course, Lessig could help clear up some of this confusion with a clear statement condemning the alleged act.

Under the law, Swartz is presumably innocent.  Still, Lessig – as well as others in the access to knowledge / free culture crowd like Public Knowledge, CDT, EFF, and Free Press – cannot lay claim to moral superiority if they approve the stealing of private property in any context.

Silence = acceptance.  Ethics Director, Larry Lessig, what say you?


photo: wikipedia

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

txpatriot July 20, 2011 at 4:25 pm

Using “Lessig” and “ethics” in the same sentence is a contradiction in terms.


Mike Wendy July 20, 2011 at 7:25 pm

Yes, the irony is rich, eh?


Lessig July 20, 2011 at 7:48 pm

Thanks for the forum.

An indictment is an allegation. It states facts the government believes it can prove. It isn’t proof of the facts. It is one side in a dispute.

Even if the facts the government alleges are true, I am not sure they constitute a crime. There is considerable uncertainty in this area of the law. Many wonder about the quick conversion of terms-of-service into criminal prosecution. But that’s a question the courts will ultimately have to resolve.

Nonetheless, if the facts are true, even if the law is not clear, I, of course, believe the behavior is ethically wrong. I am a big supporter of changing the law. As my repeated injunctions against illegal file sharing attest, however, I am not a believer in breaking bad laws. I am not even convinced that laws that protect entities like JSTOR are bad. And even if sometimes civil disobedience is appropriate, even then the disobedient disobeys the law and accepts the punishment.

That, however, begs the question of the appropriate punishment. I can’t believe Aaron did this for personal gain. Unlike, say, Wall Street (and what were the penalties they suffered?), this wasn’t behavior designed to make the man rich. Nor, if the allegations are true, was this behavior designed to interfere with any of JSTORs activity. It wasn’t a denial of service. It wasn’t designed to take any facility down.

What it was is unclear. What the law will say about it is even more unclear. What is not unclear, however, to me at least, is the ethical wrong here. I have endless respect for the genius and insight of this extraordinary kid. I cherish his advice and our friendship. But I am sorry if he indeed crossed this line. It is not a line I believe it right to cross, even if it is a line that needs to be redrawn, by better laws better tuned to the times.


Mike Wendy July 20, 2011 at 9:37 pm

Thank you, Larry, for this thoughtful response.


Mihaly Borbely July 21, 2011 at 9:34 am

The main reason I’m a big fan of Lessig is that he is not at all an extremist. This again was a fair and respectful response, which proves he is free of the radicalism that makes some “freedom fighters” unrealistic and counterproductive. Respect.


Ilias December 21, 2012 at 2:30 am

Hi Larry,
I recently got interested in this case and story trying to understand more.

Can you please clarify which part you consider “ethically wrong” ?
Do you base it on the “allegation” of Swartz “intent” to distribute the documents publicly? Of using this as a form of civil disobedience?



Prosecute Harvard January 13, 2013 at 7:53 am

I refused to fuck, suck or lick dirty pussy-fucker Paul J. Barreira and his Harvard friends. I’m takin my civil disobedience punishment now. Guess that explains all the criminal charges against me.


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