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):
- RememberAaronSw.com – site created by Aaron’s family, with many moving tributes
- Aaron Swartz (1986-2013), Web Technologist & Internet Activist – Scott Beale
- Processing the loss of Aaron Swartz – Danah Boyd
- Aaron Swartz, and the question that none dare ask Obama – Will Bunch
- Hackers for Right, We Are One Down – Gabrielle Coleman
- Postscript: Aaron Swartz (1968-2013) – Caleb Crain
- RIP, Aaron Swartz – Cory Doctorow
- Farewell to Aaron Swartz, an Extraordinary Hacker and Activist – Peter Eckersley / EFF
- Remember Aaron Swartz by working for open society and against government abuses – Dan Gillmor
- How the Government’s Prosecution of Aaron Swartz Pushed Him Toward Death – Kevin Gosztola
- Towards Learning from Losing Aaron Swartz – Jennifer Granick
- The inspiring heroism of Aaron Swartz – Glenn Greenwald
- Aaron Swartz, Was 26 – James Grimmelmann
- The Prosecution of Aaron Swartz: Sharing Knowledge is a Greater Crime Then Bringing Down the Economy – Ali Hayat
- The brilliant mind, righteous heart of Aaron Swartz will be missed – Chris Hayes
- In the Wake of Aaron Swartz’s Death, Let’s Fix Draconian Computer Crime Law – Marcia Hofmann / EFF
- Aaron Swartz, hero of the open world, dies – Brewster Kahle
- Aaron Swartz, Carmen Ortiz and the American System of Justice – Dan Kennedy
- Aaron Swartz, American Hero – Timothy B. Lee
- Internet pioneer and information activist takes his own life – Timothy B. Lee
- My Email Exchange With Aaron Swartz Shows An Original Thinker – Ronaldo Lemos
- How Aaron Swartz helped build the Internet – Todd Leopold
- Prosecutor as bully – Lawrence Lessig
- Aaron Swartz’s Thought Crime Was Tragically Treated Like Real Crime – Bill McKibben
- Aaron Swartz Faced A More Severe Prison Term Than Killers, Slave Dealers And Bank Robbers – Ian Millhiser
- Aaron Swartz, a casualty in the battle over the Internet and property rights – Patt Morrison
- My Aaron Swartz, whom I loved – Quinn Norton
- Remembering Aaron Swartz – Rick Perlstein
- Aaron Swartz fought for all of us – Privacy SOS editorial
- Why did the Massachusetts US Attorney’s office persecute Aaron Swartz? – Carol Rose & Kade Crockford
- Losing Aaron Swartz – Doc Searls
- The Truth about Aaron Swartz’s “Crime” – Alex Stamos (he would have been a defense expert at Aaron’s trial)
- Why the Net grieves Aaron Swartz – David Weinberger
- How the Legal System Failed Aaron Swartz – And Us – Tim Wu
- Goodbye Aaron – Ethan Zuckerman
News articles about Aaron’s legacy and the reactions to his death:
Associated Press, Boston.com, Chicago Sun-Times, CNET, CNN, Forbes, GigaOM, Guardian, Huffington Post (plus more about the PDF tribute, unconventional prosecution, and backlash against the U.S. Attorney), Los Angeles Times, Mashable, New York Times (The Lede blog) (Bits blog), San Francisco Chronicle, Slate, Time, Washington Post (ideas@innovations blog)
Other Internet freedom fighters tweeted their remembrances of Aaron:
The brilliant Aaron Swartz (@aaronsw), long time WikiLeaks friend, age 26, is dead after two years of harrassment by US prosecutors.
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) January 12, 2013
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) January 14, 2013
— Kim Dotcom (@KimDotcom) January 13, 2013
— Kim Dotcom (@KimDotcom) January 13, 2013
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
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.”