Tim Wu, Columbia law professor and technology law expert, has a very well-written piece in the New Yorker describing the point-scoring culture of America's prosecutors and its incompatibility with the kind of eccentric genius that America has always boasted about:
The act was harmless—not in the sense of hypothetical damages or the circular logic of deterrence theory (that's lawyerly logic), but in John Stuart Mill's sense, meaning that there was no actual physical harm, nor actual economic harm. The leak was found and plugged; JSTOR suffered no actual economic loss. It did not press charges. Like a pie in the face, Swartz's act was annoying to its victim, but of no lasting consequence.
In this sense, Swartz must be compared to two other eccentric geniuses, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who, in the nineteen-seventies, committed crimes similar to, but more economically damaging than, Swartz's. Those two men hacked A.T. & T.'s telephone system to make free long-distance calls, and actually sold the illegal devices (blue boxes) to make cash. Their mentor, John Draper, did go to jail for a few months (where he wrote one of the world's first word processors), but Jobs and Wozniak were never prosecuted. Instead, they got bored of phreaking and built a computer. The great ones almost always operate at the edge.
That was then. In our age, armed with laws passed in the nineteen-eighties and meant for serious criminals, the federal prosecutor Carmen Ortiz approved a felony indictment that originally demanded up to thirty-five years in prison. Worse still, her legal authority to take down Swartz was shaky. Just last year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals threw out a similar prosecution. Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, a prominent conservative, refused to read the law in a way that would make a criminal of "everyone who uses a computer in violation of computer use restrictions—which may well include everyone who uses a computer." Ortiz and her lawyers relied on that reading to target one of our best and brightest.