Aaron Swartz, the computer programmer and internet freedom activist, committed suicide on Friday in New York at the age of 26. As the incredibly moving remembrances from his friends such as Cory Doctorow and Larry Lessig attest, he was unquestionably brilliant but also – like most everyone – a complex human being plagued by demons and flaws. For many reasons, I don’t believe in whitewashing someone’s life or beatifying them upon death. But, to me, much of Swartz’s tragically short life was filled with acts that are genuinely and, in the most literal and noble sense, heroic. I think that’s really worth thinking about today.
At the age of 14, Swartz played a key role in developing the RSS software that is still widely used to enable people to manage what they read on the internet. As a teenager, he also played a vital role in the creation of Reddit, the wildly popular social networking news site. When Conde Nast purchased Reddit, Swartz received a substantial sum of money at a very young age. He became something of a legend in the internet and programming world before he was 18. His path to internet mogul status and the great riches it entails was clear, easy and virtually guaranteed: a path which so many other young internet entrepreneurs have found irresistible, monomaniacally devoting themselves to making more and more money long after they have more than they could ever hope to spend.
But rather obviously, Swartz had little interest in devoting his life to his own material enrichment, despite how easy it would have been for him. As Lessig wrote: “Aaron had literally done nothing in his life ‘to make money’ . . . Aaron was always and only working for (at least his conception of) the public good.”
Specifically, he committed himself to the causes in which he so passionately believed: internet freedom, civil liberties, making information and knowledge as available as possible. Here he is in his May, 2012 keynote address at the Freedom To Connect conference discussing the role he played in stopping SOPA, the movie-industry-demanded legislation that would have vested the government with dangerous censorship powers over the internet.
Critically, Swartz didn’t commit himself to these causes merely by talking about them or advocating for them. He repeatedly sacrificed his own interests, even his liberty, in order to defend these values and challenge and subvert the most powerful factions that were their enemies. That’s what makes him, in my view, so consummately heroic.
In 2008, Swartz targeted Pacer, the online service that provides access to court documents for a per-page fee. What offended Swartz and others was that people were forced to pay for access to public court documents that were created at public expense. Along with a friend, Swartz created a program to download millions of those documents and then, as Doctorow wrote, “spent a small fortune fetching a titanic amount of data and putting it into the public domain.” For that act of civil disobedience, he was investigated and harassed by the FBI, but never charged.
But in July 2011, Swartz was arrested for allegedly targeting JSTOR, the online publishing company that digitizes and distributes scholarly articles written by academics and then sells them, often at a high price, to subscribers. As Maria Bustillos detailed, none of the money goes to the actual writers (usually professors) who wrote the scholarly articles – they are usually not paid for writing them – but instead goes to the publishers.
This system offended Swartz (and many other free-data activists) for two reasons: it charged large fees for access to these articles but did not compensate the authors, and worse, it ensured that huge numbers of people are denied access to the scholarship produced by America’s colleges and universities. The indictment filed against Swartz alleged that he used his access as a Harvard fellow to the JSTOR system to download millions of articles with the intent to distribute them online for free; when he was detected and his access was cut off, the indictment claims he then trespassed into an MIT computer-wiring closet in order to physically download the data directly onto his laptop.
Swartz never distributed any of these downloaded articles. He never intended to profit even a single penny from anything he did, and never did profit in any way. He had every right to download the articles as an authorized JSTOR user; at worst, he intended to violate the company’s “terms of service” by making the articles available to the public. Once arrested, he returned all copies of everything he downloaded and vowed not to use them. JSTOR told federal prosecutors that it had no intent to see him prosecuted, though MIT remained ambiguous about its wishes.
But federal prosecutors ignored the wishes of the alleged “victims”. Led by a federal prosecutor in Boston notorious for her overzealous prosecutions, the DOJ threw the book at him, charging Swartz with multiple felonies which carried a total sentence of several decades in prison and $1 million in fines.
Swartz’s trial on these criminal charges was scheduled to begin in two months. He adamantly refused to plead guilty to a felony because he did not want to spend the rest of his life as a convicted felon with all the stigma and rights-denials that entails. The criminal proceedings, as Lessig put it, already put him in a predicament where “his wealth [was] 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.”
To say that the DOJ’s treatment of Swartz was excessive and vindictive is an extreme understatement. When I wrote about Swartz’s plight last August, I wrote that he was “being prosecuted by the DOJ with obscene over-zealousness”. Timothy Lee wrote the definitive article in 2011 explaining why, even if all the allegations in the indictment are true, the only real crime committed by Swartz was basic trespassing, for which people are punished, at most, with 30 days in jail and a $100 fine, about which Lee wrote: “That seems about right: if he’s going to serve prison time, it should be measured in days rather than years.”
Nobody knows for sure why federal prosecutors decided to pursue Swartz so vindictively, as though he had committed some sort of major crime that deserved many years in prison and financial ruin. Some theorized that the DOJ hated him for his serial activism and civil disobedience. Others speculated that, as Doctorow put it, “the feds were chasing down all the Cambridge hackers who had any connection to Bradley Manning in the hopes of turning one of them.”
I believe it has more to do with what I told the New York Times’ Noam Cohen for an article he wrote on Swartz’s case. Swartz’s activism, I argued, was waged as part of one of the most vigorously contested battles – namely, the war over how the internet is used and who controls the information that flows on it – and that was his real crime in the eyes of the US government: challenging its authority and those of corporate factions to maintain a stranglehold on that information. In that above-referenced speech on SOPA, Swartz discussed the grave dangers to internet freedom and free expression and assembly posed by the government’s efforts to control the internet with expansive interpretations of copyright law and other weapons to limit access to information.
That’s a major part of why I consider him heroic. He wasn’t merely sacrificing himself for a cause. It was a cause of supreme importance to people and movements around the world – internet freedom – and he did it by knowingly confronting the most powerful state and corporate factions because he concluded that was the only way to achieve these ends.
Suicide is an incredibly complicated phenomenon. I didn’t know Swartz nearly well enough even to form an opinion about what drove him to do this; I had a handful of exchanges with him online in which we said nice things about each other’s work and I truly admired him. I’m sure even his closest friends and family are struggling to understand exactly what caused him to defy his will to live by taking his own life.
But, despite his public and very sad writings about battling depression, it only stands to reason that a looming criminal trial that could send him to prison for decades played some role in this; even if it didn’t, this persecution by the DOJ is an outrage and an offense against all things decent, for the reasons Lessig wrote today:
“Here is where 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. From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. The ‘property’ Aaron had ‘stolen’, we were told, was worth ‘millions of dollars’ — with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime. But anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar. It was clear what this was not, yet our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed.
“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. I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.
“For remember, we live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White House — and where even those brought to ‘justice’ never even have to admit any wrongdoing, let alone be labeled ‘felons’.”
Whatever else is true, 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 knew all of this. But he forged ahead anyway. 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. It’s the attribute our country has been most lacking.
I always found it genuinely inspiring to watch Swartz exude this courage and commitment at such a young age. His death had better prompt some serious examination of the DOJ’s behavior – both in his case and its warped administration of justice generally. But his death will also hopefully strengthen the inspirational effects of thinking about and understanding the extraordinary acts he undertook in his short life.
From the official statement of Swartz’s 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 US 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.”
This sort of unrestrained prosecutorial abuse is, unfortunately, far from uncommon. It usually destroys people without attention or notice. Let’s hope – and work to ensure that – the attention generated by Swartz’s case prompts some movement toward accountability and reform.