[See UPDATE below.]
At 14, Aaron Swartz co-authored RSS 1.0, an early version of the now ubiquitous RSS; at 15, he helped design Creative Commons, a nonprofit devoted to “expanding the range of creative works available for others to build upon legally and to share”; later he founded Infogami, a software startup that merged with Reddit and contributed to that company’s successful growth and ultimate sale to Conde Nast. He later co-founded the progressive advocacy group, Demand Progress. At 24, he became a member of the Harvard University Center for Ethics, and that same year he was arrested and ultimately charged with 13 counts of hacking and computer fraud in a controversial case denounced by some as egregious prosecutorial overreach. On January 11, 2013, at age 26 and with a self-identified history of depression, he was found dead by hanging in an apparent suicide.
The reaction from the internet community was swift, as sites Swartz help found, as well as Twitter, Facebook, and blogs from around the world, were flooded with tributes of grief and outrage. His family and various close friends released emotional statements that spoke to their belief that he was, in some sense, hounded to death by the intensity of the government’s actions against him. This from his family:
“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.”
[Read their full statement here.]
Lawrence Lessig – a Harvard Law professor and close, personal friend of Swartz – wrote a scathing piece at his blog titled “Prosecutor as bully,” fiercely attacking the Federal government for their dogged and disproportional pursuit of his young protegé:
“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,” Lessig wrote. “[Aaron] 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.”
[Read Lessig’s full piece here.]
Swartz’s friend Henry Farrell, a political scientist at George Washington University, echoed the feelings of outrage:
“His last two years were hard, thanks to the U.S. Department of Justice, which engaged in gross prosecutorial overreach on the basis of stretched interpretations of the law,” he told HuffPost. “They sought felony convictions with decades of prison time for actions which, if they were illegal at all, were at most misdemeanors. Aaron struggled sometimes with depression, but it would have been hard not to be depressed in his circumstances. As Larry Lessig has rightly said, this should be a cause for great shame and anger.” [Source]
The criminal case in question occurred in the fall of 2010 and involved the downloading of academic articles from the nonprofit database JSTOR, which are free of charge to students and researchers. As a faculty member at Harvard, Swartz had legal access to JSTOR, but at issue was the sheer number of documents he downloaded, which he was purportedly planning to make available on file sharing sites. (Ironically, just two days before Swartz’s death, JSTOR made millions of its academic articles available free of charge to anyone.) JSTOR users are limited to downloading a few articles at a time, but Swartz, accessing JSTOR from the library at MIT, downloaded millions over a period of a few weeks, causing the JSTOR servers to shut down briefly and resulting in MIT’s library being blocked by JSTOR for a few days.
Despite the open access philosophy of academic research, the volume of data Swartz downloaded not only caused the system to shut-down as it did, but it was also a violation of JSTOR’s terms of service, actionable if either JSTOR or MIT wanted to pursue the matter. They did not. (MIT did not speak out strongly against the case – certainly not as aggressively as JSTOR did – eliciting the family’s subsequent outrage.) The government did, however, take action, charging Swartz with the federal crimes of mass theft, wire fraud, damaged computers, and computer fraud. From the Huffington Post:
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.
“Aaron Swartz devised a scheme to defraud JSTOR of a substantial number of journal articles which they had invested in collecting, obtaining the rights to distribute and digitizing,” the indictment reads. “He sought to defraud MIT and JSTOR of rights and property.” The prosecutors seem unaware that if an article is downloaded, the original copy remains with the owner.
The indictment does briefly acknowledge that Swartz had legal access to JSTOR’s database. “Although Harvard provided access to JSTOR’s services and archive as needed for his research, Swartz used MIT’s computer networks to steal millions of articles from JSTOR.” But the indictment does not note that Harvard and MIT have an explicit library sharing arrangement, granting scholars at one school access to many of the works and titles at the other. JSTOR has no specific academic allegiance. Its titles are available to all students at all universities at all times.
The onslaught and pursuit of these charges over the last two years apparently took its toll on Swartz, who’d admitted in the past to suffering from depression. In a 2007 speech he prepared for the Tathva computer conference at the National Institute of Technology (NIT) Calicut, he talked about the trajectory of his career and alluded to how “miserable” he was while in San Francisco working with Reddit after the Conde Nast acquisition:
“I was miserable. I couldn’t stand San Francisco. I couldn’t stand office life. I couldn’t stand Wired. I took a long Christmas vacation. I got sick. I thought of suicide. I ran from the police. And when I got back on Monday morning, I was asked to resign.”
In a blog entry that same year titled, “Sick,” he addressed the myriad of health problems he was dealing with at the time, and made particular and poignant comment about his emotional state:
“Your face falls. Perhaps you cry. You feel worthless. You wonder whether it’s worth going on. Everything you think about seems bleak – the things you’ve done, the things you hope to do, the people around you. You want to lie in bed and keep the lights off. Depressed mood is like that, only it doesn’t come for any reason and it doesn’t go for any either. 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.
“At best, you tell yourself that your thinking is irrational, that it is simply a mood disorder, that you should get on with your life. But sometimes that is 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.”
These words were heartbreaking to read when he wrote them; in light of his death, tragic. Clearly the emotional pain he described in that 2007 blog entry stayed with him and was exacerbated by the relentlessness of a federal case that threatened to put him away for years.
As an ardent activist for the open exchange of information and a thoughtful man involved in progressive causes, there must have been something particularly devastating to Swartz about being criminalized as a self-serving “hacker” looking to make millions off stolen materials. In truth, his mission was firmly focused on the public good: building a free public library and “liberating public records,” as his friend Professor Lessig put it, for the benefit of all who wished to access them.
“A soul, a conscience,” who ultimately and tragically found the harshness and pain of life unendurable.
[UPDATE: As of Monday, January 14, 2013, the Justice Department dropped all charges against Aaron Swartz, citing his death: details here.]