26-year-old Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz, who also co-wrote RSS (while 13 & 14 years old) and was an Internet activist (who helped save the internet), reportedly hanged himself in his apartment. He was either driven to suicide by a couple of corrupt overzealous attorneys that constantly harassed him or suicided. Propaganda was put out that he had battled depression and he was also facing jail time after allegedly hacking into MIT’s servers and stealing millions of journal articles.
He became something of a legend in the internet and programming world before he was 18. His path to internet mogul status and the great riches it entails was clear, easy and virtually guaranteed: a path which so many other young internet entrepreneurs have found irresistible, monomaniacally devoting themselves to making more and more money long after they have more than they could ever hope to spend.
But rather obviously, Swartz had little interest in devoting his life to his own material enrichment, despite how easy it would have been for him. As Lessig wrote: “Aaron had literally done nothing in his life ‘to make money’ . . . Aaron was always and only working for (at least his conception of) the public good.”
Specifically, he committed himself to the causes in which he so passionately believed: internet freedom, civil liberties, making information and knowledge as available as possible. Here he is (below) in his May, 2012 keynote address at the Freedom To Connect conference discussing the role he played in stopping SOPA, the movie-industry-demanded legislation that would have vested the government with dangerous censorship powers over the internet.
Critically, Swartz didn’t commit himself to these causes merely by talking about them or advocating for them. He repeatedly sacrificed his own interests, even his liberty, in order to defend these values and challenge and subvert the most powerful factions that were their enemies. That’s what makes him so consummately heroic.
In 2008, Swartz targeted Pacer, the online service that provides access to court documents for a per-page fee. What offended Swartz and others was that people were forced to pay for access to public court documents that were created at public expense. Along with a friend, Swartz created a program to download millions of those documents and then, as Doctorow wrote, “spent a small fortune fetching a titanic amount of data and putting it into the public domain.” For that act of civil disobedience, he was investigated and harassed by the FBI, but never charged.
But in July 2011, Swartz was arrested for allegedly targeting JSTOR, the online publishing company that digitizes and distributes scholarly articles written by academics and then sells them, often at a high price, to subscribers. As Maria Bustillos detailed, none of the money goes to the actual writers (usually professors) who wrote the scholarly articles – they are usually not paid for writing them – but instead goes to the publishers.
This system offended Swartz (and many other free-data activists) for two reasons: it charged large fees for access to these articles but did not compensate the authors, and worse, it ensured that huge numbers of people are denied access to the scholarship produced by America’s colleges and universities. The indictment filed against Swartz alleged that he used his access as a Harvard fellow to the JSTOR system to download millions of articles with the intent to distribute them online for free; when he was detected and his access was cut off, the indictment claims he then trespassed into an MIT computer-wiring closet in order to physically download the data directly onto his laptop.
Swartz never distributed any of these downloaded articles. He never intended to profit even a single penny from anything he did, and never did profit in any way. He had every right to download the articles as an authorized JSTOR user; at worst, he intended to violate the company’s “terms of service” by making the articles available to the public. Once arrested, he returned all copies of everything he downloaded and vowed not to use them. JSTOR told federal prosecutors that it had no intent to see him prosecuted, though MIT remained ambiguous about its wishes.
But federal prosecutors ignored the wishes of the alleged “victims”. Led by a federal prosecutor in Boston notorious for her overzealous prosecutions, the DOJ threw the book at him, charging Swartz with multiple felonies which carried a total sentence of several decades in prison and $1 million in fines.
The authorities had noted how effective Swartz had become as an activist (he had, after all, mobilized the net community to stop the internet censorship legislation of the SOPA bill), and they were determined to make an example of him pour décourager les autres. Which, if true, would mean the Obama administration had taken a leaf out of the Chinese book on internet control: people can say more or less what they like online; but the moment they look like mobilizing people, then you come down on them like the ton of bricks that crushed Aaron Swartz.
Swartz’s trial on these criminal charges was scheduled to begin in two months. He adamantly refused to plead guilty to a felony because he did not want to spend the rest of his life as a convicted felon with all the stigma and rights-denials that entails. The criminal proceedings, as Lessig put it, already put him in a predicament where “his wealth [was] bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge.”
Swartz’s activism, I argued, was waged as part of one of the most vigorously contested battles – namely, the war over how the internet is used and who controls the information that flows on it – and that was his real crime in the eyes of the US government: challenging its authority and those of corporate factions to maintain a stranglehold on that information. In that above-referenced speech on SOPA, Swartz discussed the grave dangers to internet freedom and free expression and assembly posed by the government’s efforts to control the internet with expansive interpretations of copyright law and other weapons to limit access to information.
That’s a major part of why I consider him heroic. He wasn’t merely sacrificing himself for a cause. It was a cause of supreme importance to people and movements around the world – internet freedom – and he did it by knowingly confronting the most powerful state and corporate factions because he concluded that was the only way to achieve these ends.
At the funeral, his father told guests that his son had been “killed by the government,” the AP reports.
“He was killed by the government, and MIT betrayed all of its basic principles,” Mr. Swartz told the crowd.
The comment was directed at U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz and Stephen Heymann, who were leading the charge on Swartz’s case. Many feel the pair tried to paint Swartz’s action in the worst possible light and give him an unreasonable sentence. Swartz was potentially facing years in jail for allegedly stealing copies of papers; he caused no direct harm to anyone.
Outside the service, clinical psychologist Dr. Jeanne Beckmman echoed those sentiments. “The major cause of this man’s death was because of bullying by federal prosecutors,” she said.
Swartz, 26, was facing charges that remarkably carried a maximum penalty of five decades in prison. His trial was scheduled to begin in April.
Many of the nearly 350 mourners on hand at the service remarked of the young man’s desire to improve the world around him. In Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman’s, Swartz’s partner, eulogy as well as those offered by others, the take-away by and large was that Swartz, to the ones closest to the computer genius, was adamant on social change.
“Aaron meant more to our people than I think anyone else we know,” said Stinebrickner-Kauffman, who met Swartz through a tight-knit circle of activists from New England.
Elsewhere during her eulogy, Stinebrickner-Kauffman spoke harshly of the Massachusetts attorney general that filed charges against Swartz, as well as the institution that some say could have stopped the federal government from following up with the hacking case but did not.
“He’s somebody that just wanted to make the world better, and he did it in two ways: first, he wrote a lot of software that he made publicly available for everybody to use, that’s very important. And also, he believed that scientific publications should be freely available to everybody,” said DePaul University computer science professor Massimo DiPierro.
U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz had no comment about Robert Swartz’s remarks, Ortiz spokeswoman Christina DiIorio-Sterling said.
Swartz’s family also lashed out against prosecutors saying the death was “the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.”
The following week, on Tuesday, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) introduced a piece of legislation that would modify the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act to exclude the simple terms of service violation that Swartz had violated that resulted in his death. She is calling it “Aaron’s Law.”
After reports of Aaron Swartz’s apparent suicide circulated around the Internet, investigators found evidence of foul play. A former architect of Reddit, the online forum scandalized earlier that year by child pornography and “creepshots,” Aaron Swartz was widely known for his contributions to anti-copyright activism after stealing millions of files from MIT.
Hackers from Anonymous released a statement on Sunday, “Heavy-handed prosecutors raped the beautiful mind of Aaron Swartz. He later ‘killed himself.’ Are the draconian copyright laws selectively applied to those who threaten the inertia of entrenched power? Certainly. Will they use their sockpuppets and judicial torture system to make YOU kill yourself too? Of course. Will they kill you if you go too far?”
Chronicle Reporters also questioned Julian Assange, sick from months of exile in the Ecuadorean embassy, about the death of Aaron Swartz. “I am not convinced that Aaron Swartz was such a coward he committed suicide due to fear of prison,” said Mr. Assange. “Read his words, and decide for yourself, but I believe Swartz was murdered by a team of copyright assassins who made it all look like a simple suicide. Watch what you say, or you may end up like Aaron Swartz.”
That “false characterization” spearheaded by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office, said Swartz’ dad, was likely the cause of his son’s death. Whereas the public applauds computer icons like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as visionaries, Robert Swartz said his son was much more innocent in the eyes of the world at large, just not the federal government.
Before his days with Apple, recalled Mr. Swartz, Jobs and his business partner Steve Wozniak “used to criminally defraud the phone company” by selling small “blue box” devices that allowed anyone in the country to conduct long-distance calls for free. Gates’ development of Microsoft’s BASIC, Swartz said, was “sketchy” at best.
“These are people who are lionized, treated like idols in our culture. How is that Aaron did something that legally wasn’t illegal — and he was destroyed by it?”
Mr. Swartz also had harsh words for MIT, who, unlike JSTOR, was relentless in their pursuit of the alleged criminal hacker.
“We tried and tried to get MIT to help and show compassion,” he said, but “their institutional concerns were more important than compassion.”
Following Swartz’ passing, members of the hacktivist group Anonymous gained unauthorized access to MIT’s servers and posted a tribute that was cited during Tuesday’s service, which also included eulogies from some of the most respected figures of Internet culture.
Tim Berners-Lee, a British scientist responsible for developing the World Wide Web, called Aaron Swartz “an elder” of the computer and information community during the funeral. When Berners-Lee first met Swartz, the young prodigy was all of 14 years old.
“I have not met anyone else so ethical,” Berners-Lee said. “He knew by writing code . . . he could change the world.”
“Up until the end, he was fighting for right,” he said.
Lawrence Lessig, an academic and political activist who knew Aaron Swartz for over a decade, called the government’s attempt to prosecute his friend pointless and an example of “idiocy” during the service. Elliot Peters, Swartz’ attorney in the JSTOR case, said his client’s peers are now without someone whose “passion for freedom and fairness” and a “mistrust for power” was unmatched. Peters echoed that same mistrust in his eulogy, which condemned the federal prosecutors that he suggested were at least partially responsible in his client’s death.
“Aaron, sadly, provided them the opportunity to make a case,” he said. “Something they could brag about.”
“They didn’t care who Aaron really was, or what he was doing,” Peters said. Meanwhile, he considered Swartz a “young, diminutive and oh so brilliant client” and compared his advocacy against the government to that of the American patriots during the US revolution.
“Aaron still lives as a voice for good,” his father said as the ceremony neared ending. “He spent his short life selflessly trying to make the world a better place for everyone.”
“Selfless” was an adjective used countless times during the funeral by several persons who cited Swartz’ insistence on putting others first as perhaps his most powerful trait.
“Your grief should not be equal to his work, because then your sorrow will never end,” Peters said at one point to quote Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
“As much as we despair, and we all do, we must know that we do all change the world. And we must never stop,” Mr. Swartz said before the ceremony concluded.
Memorial services for Swartz across the country were held with hundreds of mourners attending the following week in New York City at a tribute in Times Square.
Swartz gave a talk in 2008, mentioning his intention to ”download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks.”
Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You’ll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier.
There are those struggling to change this. The Open Access Movement has fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it. But even under the best scenarios, their work will only apply to things published in the future. Everything up until now will have been lost.
That is too high a price to pay. Forcing academics to pay money to read the work of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries but only allowing the folks at Google to read them? Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It’s outrageous and unacceptable.
“I agree,” many say, “but what can we do? The companies hold the copyrights, they make enormous amounts of money by charging for access, and it’s perfectly legal — there’s nothing we can do to stop them.” But there is something we can, something that’s already being done: we can fight back.
Those with access to these resources — students, librarians, scientists — you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not — indeed, morally, you cannot — keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download requests for friends.
Meanwhile, those who have been locked out are not standing idly by. You have been sneaking through holes and climbing over fences, liberating the information locked up by the publishers and sharing them with your friends.
But all of this action goes on in the dark, hidden underground. It’s called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn’t immoral — it’s a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy.
Large corporations, of course, are blinded by greed. The laws under which they operate require it — their shareholders would revolt at anything less. And the politicians they have bought off back them, passing laws giving them the exclusive power to decide who can make copies.
There is no justice in following unjust laws. It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.
We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.
With enough of us, around the world, we’ll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge — we’ll make it a thing of the past. Will you join us?
July 2008, Eremo, Italy
Aaron’s commitment to social justice was profound, and defined his life. He was instrumental to the defeat of an Internet censorship bill; he fought for a more democratic, open, and accountable political system; and he helped to create, build, and preserve a dizzying range of scholarly projects that extended the scope and accessibility of human knowledge. He used his prodigious skills as a programmer and technologist not to enrich himself but to make the Internet and the world a fairer, better place. His deeply humane writing touched minds and hearts across generations and continents. He earned the friendship of thousands and the respect and support of millions more.
Knowledge is power, and the elite hoard it, monopolize it, and keep the rest of the world in the dark of it unless they are willing to join their exclusive and evil club. Swartz was opposed to their monopoly and was doing something about it.
Larry Lesig, a Harvard University professor, Internet law expert and friend of Swartz’s, also blamed the federal prosecutor, calling him a “bully” on his blog and writing that Swartz, who hinted previously at having a history of depression, had been “driven to the edge” by the government’s disproportionate and overly aggressive handling of his case.
50 years for hacking?
“Here is where we need a better sense of justice, and shame. For the outrageousness in this story is not just Aaron. It is also the absurdity of the prosecutor’s behavior. From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. The ‘property’ Aaron had ‘stolen’, we were told, was worth ‘millions of dollars’ — with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime. But anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar. It was clear what this was not, yet our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed.
“A kid genius. A soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think? That person is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying. I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.
“For remember, we live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White House — and where even those brought to ‘justice’ never even have to admit any wrongdoing, let alone be labeled ‘felons’.”
The Reddit co-founder was arrested in 2011 for allegedly downloading the academic journals from the JSTOR online journal archive, with the intent of distributing them free of charge via file-sharing sites. He was charged with 13 counts of felony hacking in September 2012.
Lessig and others were especially outraged by the amount of jail time prosecutors were seeking.
“50 years in jail, charges our government. Somehow, we need to get beyond the ‘I’m right so I’m right to nuke you’ ethics that dominates our time. That begins with one word: shame,” he wrote in his blog.
The real crime may be what led Swartz to take his own life
If the allegations against him were true, writes Peter Eckersley at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a day after Swartz’s death:
[T]he situation Aaron found himself in highlights the injustice of U.S. computer crime laws, and particularly their punishment regimes. Aaron’s act was undoubtedly political activism, and taking such an act in the physical world would, at most, have meant he faced light penalties akin to trespassing as part of a political protest. Because he used a computer, he instead faced long-term incarceration. This is a disparity that EFF has fought against for years. Yesterday, it had tragic consequences.
Zach Carter, Ryan Grimm, and Ryan J. Reilly provided even more insight into what appears to be a clear case of prosecutorial bullying. From the Huffington Post:
Swartz spent the last two years fighting federal hacking charges. In July 2011, prosecutor Scott Garland working under U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, a politician with her eye on the governor’s mansion, charged Swartz with four counts of felony misconduct – charges that were deemed outrageous by internet experts who understood the case, and wholly unnecessary by the parties Swartz was accused of wronging. Swartz repeatedly sought to reduce the charges to a level below felony status, but prosecutors pressed on, adding additional charges so that by September 2012 Swartz faced 13 felony counts and up to half a century in prison.
In the end, federal prosecutors’ zealous pursuit of Swartz and unwillingness to negotiate on charges undoubtedly led him to choose death. They may not have physically strung him up by his neck, but they cannot credibly claim they had no role whatsoever in his death. There’s also the chance that he was suicided, hung by assassins who made it look like he hung himself.
Whatever else is true, Swartz was destroyed by a “justice” system that fully protects the most egregious criminals as long as they are members of or useful to the nation’s most powerful factions, but punishes with incomparable mercilessness and harshness those who lack power and, most of all, those who challenge power.
Swartz knew all of this. But he forged ahead anyway. He could have easily opted for a life of great personal wealth, status, prestige and comfort. He chose instead to fight – selflessly, with conviction and purpose, and at great risk to himself – for noble causes to which he was passionately devoted. That, to me, isn’t an example of heroism; it’s the embodiment of it, its purest expression. It’s the attribute our country has been most lacking.