Aaron H. Swartz, one of our most vigorous champions of open access and copyright reform, committed suicide in New York City on Friday at the age of 26.
* Update: In the Public Fury, Calls for Reform
He was a pioneer and a renegade, part of the team that built Reddit as well as the widely-used RSS protocol. But he first began making headlines for a coding exploit that he undertook in September of 2010, when he used MIT's servers to scrape and download some two million academic articles stored by the online catalog JSTOR using a program named keepgrabbing.py. Per copyright law, it may have been illegal or, as some argue, "inconsiderate": these articles were meant only to be available to MIT affiliates, not to the wider world that Swartz believed deserved better access to the world's information.
MIT didn't press charges and neither did JSTOR. The government, however, decided to throw the book at Swartz, eventually hitting him with 13 separate charges and threatening to send him to prison for decades. According to his mother, Swartz was depressed about the court case and possibility of years in prison. He'd contemplated suicide in the past and, for unknown reasons, followed through this time.
In July of 2011, Swartz was arrested and indicted for that exploit. In September, the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts piled on additional felony counts, increasing the number of charges from four to 13. They included everything from wire fraud, computer fraud, and reckless damaging JSTOR--the latter justified by the prosecution due to the down time to the database during Swartz’s mass scraping--and the prosecution said that Swartz had "stolen … millions of dollars" worth of "property." The pending charges carried potential penalties of up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines. At the time, he declined Motherboard's request for an interview. "Afraid I can't comment on much," he wrote.
But ITHAKA, the nonprofit organization responsible for JSTOR, reiterated to Motherboard in September that it had settled its civil claims with Swartz and considered the matter “concluded.” One might well wonder why criminal prosecutors were so fervent in their case against Swartz considering ITHAKA’s opting not to pursue the case any further. Many considered Swartz the victim of example-making by the FBI.
Aaron Swartz's million-member strong Demand Progress was a prominent critic of SOPA
There's a good chance that Swartz affected how you use the Internet, and how you will use it. Prior to that high profile incident (and another mass download), Swartz had already proven himself as a distinguished technologist and intellectual, having been co-author of the first RSS specification--which may well have brought you to this article--when he was just 14-years-old. He went on to attend Stanford but left after a year, saying that he "didn't find it a very intellectual atmosphere, since most of the other kids seemed profoundly unconcerned with their studies."
Instead of finishing college, Swartz founded a company called Infogami that was funded by Y Combinator's first summer program. Through Y Combinator, he ended up on the team that founded Reddit, and as his friend Cory Doctorow points out, is considered a co-founder by many, even though he's not officially listed as so. More recently, Swartz joined the fight against SOPA/PIPA by founding the hugely popular online activist organization Demand Progress, and served as a fellow at Harvard's Center for Ethics.
Aaron was also a prolific writer and speaker. On his blog, Raw Thought, he delivered intelligent criticisms of the prevailing online encyclopedia in "Who Writes Wikipedia," and in 2011, delivered a talk about Wikipedia at the O'Reilly Tools for Change conference. In 2007, he helped develop the nonprofit Open Library, which seeks to collect information about every book ever published. A project he worked on with the photographer Taryn Simon appeared at the New Museum in 2012. Most recently, he lived in Brooklyn and coded for Avaaz.org.
Aaron in a 2007 interview
By all accounts, Swartz is known as a pioneering mind of the Internet freedom movement. Through his own description of events during Reddit’s acquisition, it was obvious that Swartz’s involvement stemmed from a desire to expand upon principles of open access to information and reform to higher education, rather than a predisposition to monetize what was fast becoming a lucrative source of referral traffic for online publishing. This ideology was further outlined by his “Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto,” published in 2008, which sets out Swartz’s philosphy on the open access movement.
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.
It’s difficult to say at this point how Aaron’s legal situation affected his decision to take his own life. Over the years, he made candid admissions of personal battles with depression and he made no secret of his anxiety over the case.
“Go outside and get some fresh air or cuddle with a loved one and you don’t feel any better, only more upset at being unable to feel the joy that everyone else seems to feel. Everything gets colored by the sadness,” he wrote in 2007. When things get worse, “you feel as if streaks of pain are running through your head, you thrash your body, you search for some escape but find none. And this is one of the more moderate forms.”
In a blog post on Saturday, Swartz's family and his partner, Taren Stinebricker-Kaufmann, wrote, "Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles."
One thing is patently clear: the open Internet is heartbroken. Few have been able to make sense of the prosecution's relentless pursuit of Swartz. He had tweaked the government before, during his efforts in 2008 to build a system that would provide Americans with free access to documents related to federal case-law (the current system charges 10 cents per page), a comendable effort that earned him an FBI investigation, though charges were never filed. (A version of the project lives at theinfo.org.) His affiliation with hackers in Cambridge may have made Swartz a person of interest for the authorities eager to convict Bradley Manning, who once visited an MIT hackerspace.
Aaron dead.World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder.Hackers for right, we are one down.Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.— Tim Berners-Lee (@timberners_lee) January 12, 2013
I just woke up to find out that my old friend Aaron Swartz committed suicide. If you are depressed/hopeless, please talk to your friends.— Cory Doctorow (@doctorow) January 12, 2013
"Be curious. Read widely. Try new things. I think a lot of what people call intelligence just boils down to curiosity." - Aaron Swartz— Will McNeilly (@willmcneilly) January 12, 2013
I've lost my best friend and my lover.— Quinn Norton (@quinnnorton) January 12, 2013
The Internet's frustration over Swartz's death echoes indignation over the government's growing hacker hunt. Cyber security is now one of Washington's biggest hobgoblins, but in the absence of any real strategy to solve it, the Feds have taken a harsh approach, indicting hackers for data scrapes and handing down draconian sentences in an effort to discourage others.
Lawrence Lessig, the Harvard legal expert who has also condemned copyright law for killing creativity and academic freedom, calls this the "prosecutor as bully" scenario. Lessig, founder of Creative Commons and a friend and long-time defender of Aaron, posted his own reaction to the suicide with that headline, and makes no apologies in drawing a connection to Swartz’s continued legal prosecution:
Aaron had literally done nothing in his life “to make money.” He was fortunate Reddit turned out as it did, but from his work building the RSS standard, to his work architecting Creative Commons, to his work liberating public records, to his work building a free public library, to his work supporting Change Congress / FixCongressFirst / Rootstrikers, and then Demand Progress, Aaron was always and only working for (at least his conception of) the public good. He was brilliant, and funny. 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...
Fifty 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.
One word, and endless tears.
Just days before his death, Swartz's vision was vindicated, in a small way. JSTOR announced it would be making thousands of articles--a tiny portion of its database--free to registered users for the first time ever.
Image via Flickr