Philosopher Peter Ludlow writes in the New York Times on today's hacktivists, Socrates, and the power of the state to punish any of us.
Around 400 B.C., Socrates was brought to trial on charges of corrupting the youth of Athens and “impiety.” Presumably, however, people believed then as we do now, that Socrates’ real crime was being too clever and, not insignificantly, a royal pain to those in power or, as Plato put it, a gadfly.
Hacker/activist Weev was recently charged under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and sentenced to 41 months in jail and a $73,000 fine.
The law, as interpreted by the prosecutors, makes it a felony to use a computer system for “unintended” applications, or even violate a terms-of-service agreement. That would theoretically make a felon out of anyone who lied about their age or weight on Match.com.
Hacker/activist Aaron Swartz was recently targeted under the same law. Ludlow highlights other striking cases of hacktivists being punished in ways seemingly out of proportion with their actions. These cases serve as an absurd portal into ancient Greece.
In a world in which nearly everyone is technically a felon, we rely on the good judgment of prosecutors to decide who should be targets and how hard the law should come down on them. We have thus entered a legal reality not so different from that faced by Socrates when the Thirty Tyrants ruled Athens, and it is a dangerous one. When everyone is guilty of something, those most harshly prosecuted tend to be the ones that are challenging the established order, poking fun at the authorities, speaking truth to power — in other words, the gadflies of our society.
After looking back, we should be concerned for what comes next.