January 14, 2013

RIP Aaron Swartz

Filed under: Internet by Victoria Liberty @ 6:47 am


Aaron H. Swartz, 11/8/1986 – 1/11/2013

On Friday, January 11, 2013, Aaron Swartz, age 26, hanged himself to death in his Brooklyn, NY, apartment. He was a brilliant computer programmer and a courageous advocate for Internet freedom.

At age 13, he created a web encyclopedia and won the ArsDigita Prize, an award for young people who create “useful, educational, and collaborative” websites. At age 14, he created RSS, the technology behind the link that you see in the sidebar of nearly every blog, enabling readers to subscribe to blog updates. At age 15, he helped to found Creative Commons, likely the most well-known and popular system for licensing content so that it can be redistributed by others. Later he created a wiki platform called Infogami, which merged with Reddit in 2005, making him more or less a co-founder of Reddit. He built the website framework web.py as well as the Open Library, a digital library making books available for free through the Internet. Additionally, he worked on HTTPS Everywhere, a browser extension that helps to protect privacy. From 2010-2011, he was a fellow at Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. In 2010, he founded Demand Progress, an advocacy group that has fought against naked body scanners, the Patriot Act, and threats to Internet freedom. Swartz and Demand Progress were instrumental in defeating SOPA and PIPA, and on May 21, 2012 he gave the keynote address at the Freedom to Connect event in Washington, D.C., entitled, “How we stopped SOPA.”

I think it’s accurate to say that Aaron was bullied to death by the U.S. government. On July 19, 2011, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts decided to charge him with wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer. On September 12, 2012, additional charges were added, bringing the total to 13 felony counts, which were punishable by up to a $4 million fine and 50 years in prison. These charges were the result of Swartz attaching a computer to MIT’s network and using a custom program to download 4.8 million scholarly articles from the database JSTOR, most likely in order to make them available for free to the public. At the time of his death, he was out on $100,000 bail and was awaiting trial on April 1.

Aaron’s family said in a statement:

“Aaron’s insatiable curiosity, creativity, and brilliance; his reflexive empathy and capacity for selfless, boundless love; his refusal to accept injustice as inevitable — these gifts made the world, and our lives, far brighter. We’re grateful for our time with him, to those who loved him and stood with him, and to all of those who continue his work for a better world.

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.

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.”

And as Aaron’s friend and mentor, Lawrence Lessig, wrote:

“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…

That person is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying

[T]he question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a ‘felon.’ For in the 18 months of negotiations, that was what he was not willing to accept, and so that was the reason he was facing a million dollar trial in April — his wealth 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.”

Glenn Greenwald wrote in a column for the Guardian:

“To say that the DOJ’s treatment of Swartz was excessive and vindictive is an extreme understatement…

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.

The Internet has been flooded with tributes to Aaron, many by people who knew him personally and who described what an amazing person he was better than I can. Thousands of researchers honored his memory by uploading and tweeting copyright-protected academic articles for the benefit of the public. Anonymous hacked MIT’s website to post a message calling the criminal case “a grotesque miscarriage of justice, a distorted and perverse shadow of the justice that Aaron died fighting for.” He is remembered as as a “hero of the free culture movement,” and his death has been described as “politically malignant” for the prosecutors involved, and a “watershed moment in the ongoing intellectual property debate.” Below are links to some of the numerous obituaries, articles, and tributes to Aaron (the list will be updated as I find more):


CNET, Daily Beast, EconomistGizmodoHuffington Post, Los Angeles Times, Mashable, New York Times, PatchSlateThe Tech, TimeWired

News articles about Aaron’s legacy and the reactions to his death:

Associated PressBoston.com, Chicago Sun-TimesCNET, CNNForbesGigaOM, GuardianHuffington Post (plus more about the PDF tributeunconventional prosecution, and backlash against the U.S. Attorney), Los Angeles Times, MashableNew York Times (The Lede blog) (Bits blog), San Francisco Chronicle, SlateTime,  Washington Post (ideas@innovations blog)

Other Internet freedom fighters tweeted their remembrances of Aaron:

Aaron, you were a brave freedom fighter and hero who changed the world for the better. May you rest in peace and may the world never forget you.

Update as of Monday evening: On Monday morning, the U.S. Attorney’s Office dropped the charges against Aaron. Also a Wall Street Journal article published the same day, including interviews with Aaron’s lawyer, girlfriend, and father, lends further evidence showing that the U.S. Department of Justice bullied Aaron to death. It is revealed that two days before he died, his lawyer spoke to the Assistant U.S. Attorney in charge of the case in an attempt to possibly work out a plea bargain. The Assistant U.S. Attorney refused to budge from his insistence that Aaron plead guilty to every count of the indictment and serve prison time.

1/15 update: An article by Michael Daly at the Daily Beast provides more details from Aaron’s lawyer about his defense strategy, as well as the prosecutors involved.

1/16 update: In a wonderful tribute, Silver Circle Underground named Aaron their Rebel of the Week, writing that prisons “are not a place to house our greatest minds who are fighting to bring taxpayer-funded educational information to the public.”

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