Facing Government Prosecution, Internet Freedom Activist Aaron Swartz Commits Suicide
Programming prodigy and digital activist Aaron Swartz hanged himself on Jan 11. His suicide comes three months before his case was set to go to trial, with a federal prosecutor seeking to slam him with a $1 million fine and 30-year prison sentence for “liberating” millions of academic articles from database paywalls. Swartz was 26 years old.
Swartz had a life marked with brilliance, passion, and, for much of his adult life, deep depression. He helped create the RSS feed at age 14, co-developed the Creative Commons license, and was an early builder of Reddit in 2006. More recently, Swartz founded the group DemandProgress and spearheaded the successful campaign against the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act, which would have granted law enforcement greater powers to crack down on intellectual property rights violations up to and including forced censorship of domain names.
The federal government watched him at every turn. After Swartz retrieved 20 percent of U.S. case-law from behind a government-run paywall and reuploaded it to the Internet for others to access, for free, the FBI launched their investigation against him. He narrowly avoided litigation. Federal Prosecutor Carmen Ortiz pounced years later, in 2011, when he was caught using the MIT network and clever programming to download millions of academic articles from database JSTOR. Swartz was charged with fraud and theft—millions of dollars of theft, though he didn't profit a dime.
JSTOR declined to prosecute, but MIT remained silent and the Department of Justice asked for the maximum sentence of more than 30 years and $1 million in fines—and that was before a September indictment that trebled the felony charges against him.
Now Aaron Swartz is dead. Here are some voices raised in remembrance and anger:
- Cory Doctorow, announcing Swartz's death publicly, remembers a young man who made a great impression upon him: “To the world: we have all lost someone today who had more work to do, and who made the world a better place when he did it.”
- Glenn Greenwald provides a comprehensive overview, conscious both of the deep injustice done to Swartz and of his heroism: “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's family and partner grieve his loss and blame both MIT and the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney: “Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.”
- Lawrence Lessig lambasts a malicious prosecution with no “sense of proportionality”: “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. “
- Alex Stamos, a computer crime investigator tapped to serve as an expert witness in the trial, writes that Swartz committed no crime.
- Matthew Stoller remembers Swartz's curiosity-driven, principled politic, and how they inevitably marked him as a target: "What killed him was corruption. Corruption isn’t just people profiting from betraying the public interest. It’s also people being punished for upholding the public interest."
- Susie Bright wonders if Swartz's depression and the trial are connected on another, more disturbing level: “I wager the Justice Department understood Aaron's suicidal and depression vulnerabilities better than ANYONE— because they make a living, a strategy, going after the weakest links, exploiting psychological deficit and isolation at EVERY TURN.”
- Former partner Quinn Norton mourns: “More than anything, together we loved the world, with the kind of love that grips and tears. We were fearsome creatures, chained to our caring, chained to other people.”
- danah boyd asks for “an approach to change-making that doesn’t result in brilliant people being held up as examples so that they can be tormented by power.”
- Swartz, anticipating his own death years earlier, asks that the contents of his hard drives “be made publicly available” on his own web site: “Oh, and BTW, I'll miss you all.”
As Internet freedom activists mourn Swartz as a hero, they recognize that his prosecution is just the latest setback in a continuing struggle against censorship, overweening intellectual property rights, and government control of the Internet—and through it, the spread of information. For many, grieving looks like a renewed commitment to the fight.
"We are working with Aaron’s friends, family, and colleagues to determine how best to pay tribute to him," DemandProgress writes on its web site. "It will surely entail engaging in political activism in service of making this world a more just one."
Shay O'Reilly is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow him on Twitter @shaygabriel.