The collective outpouring of grief and anger at the circumstances surrounding the death of Internet visionary Aaron Swartz is only continuing to grow. In the past few days, we have seen his friends and co-workers share warm stories of his brilliance, compassion, and tireless dedication to the causes of an open and free exchange of ideas. Yet a dark cloud hangs over these discussions: the thought of what could have been if things went differently.
This case has exposed to the world an ugly, corrupt side of our justice system – one that prioritizes harassment over due process, which uses the threat of incarceration as a tool of psychological warfare.
In part, because of a misguided, ruthless prosecution and the revolting behavior of one of our nation’s most respected educational institutions, our generation has lost one of its brightest stars. When a system judges a victimless transgression against intellectual property as a worse offense than entire classes of violent crimes, society is in a dangerous place.
As Columbia Professor Tim Wu points out, “the great ones almost always operate at the edge;” Steve Jobs and an entire generation of technological geniuses found their roots in hacking telephones and early communication systems. We would have lost so much if we branded them as “destructive felons” before their careers even began.
Swartz was only a year older than me when he tragically took his life, yet he already had contributed so much to the world. I never had the opportunity to meet him, but I benefit from his work regularly. RSS feeds have simplified my daily reading, Creative Commons licenses have made sharing content far easier, and I have spent countless hours learning incredible things deep in the pages of Reddit. More than that, my entire generation has benefitted enormously from a free and open Internet, which he fought so hard to preserve.
In many ways, the rapid exchange of information has come to define our generation – we were the pioneers of a more social Internet, and we’ve watched many times as entire industries have transformed into bits of data that can be seamlessly shared online. We are a generation built off the “remix,” understanding that originality can come from reinterpretation. And for better or worse, we have little respect for artificial barriers meant to keep knowledge and content restricted to only certain people.
The Internet has played a critical role in our development, exposing us to stories, information and perspective from people from all walks of life, globally. It has also been critical in helping to create what is one of the largest, most socially tolerant generations ever to exist. We know the positive power of technology, but we understand that people connect with each other, we learn through the human experience.
Swartz not only reflected these values and beliefs, through his incredible body of work he actively moved these causes forward. In his many writings, he reveals himself to be an idealist, unsatisfied with what was around him. Yet he was one of the few with the actual passion to create the change that he wanted to see.
Moving forward, the authorities involved need to be held accountable for their actions – at the very least. We need to take a hard look at our legal systems, our priorities and how we can stop this from happening again. It seems that the government has inadvertently breathed new life into the causes that Swartz championed. The exciting #pdftribute campaign by researchers on Twitter is just one example of what can be done to improve the world in his name.
His actions were rare and powerful acts of civil disobedience that are not commonly seen in our generation. Though his time on the planet was short, Swartz made a monumental impact. The fact that his last days were spent in such darkness is truly heartbreaking.
Tarun Wadhwa is a research fellow with Singularity University and a researcher with the Hybrid Reality Institute. He is currently completing a book analyzing the impact of the global rise of digital identification systems. You can follow him on Twitter: @twadhwa.
This story originally appeared on Forbes.com.