A federal case involving an unrelenting prosecutor and a brilliant young prodigy has ended in tragedy. 26 year old Aaron Swartz, the subject of the federal case, has taken his life and a bright star’s light has gone dim in the world. If you’re like me, you may not be familiar with the name right away, but the impact this young man had on the world during his short life merits our pause and reflection. He was humble and shy and the federal case against him has mostly been overshadowed by mass shootings and political malarchy over the past couple of years.
The Making of a Genius
Aaron Swartz was born in Chicago, Illinois in November 1986. His father was a computer programmer and founder of his own computer company. Thus, the early spark of interest for all things computing was born in Aaron. By the time he was 13 years old he was recognized for his technological achievements by winning the ArsDigita Prize which recognized young people for developing “useful, educational, and collaborative” non-commercial Web sites. As a result of that win he was able to visit MIT to meet some dignitaries of the internet. By the time he was 18, he was working on the team that developed RSS 1.o. For those who may not be familiar with that term, RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication and is a standard used by many news organizations and blogs to send news feeds to their readers. He also played a strong role in the founding of Creative Commons which seeks to make creative works accessible to the public.
In more recent days, Swartz championed the cause of free information. It is probably safe to say he is the Robin Hood of information as he pressed for the free flow of information to the public, particularly the academic journals which are housed in large University databases that require fees to access. He co-founded a group called Demand Progress whose efforts are attributed to stopping the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) from passing. Below, you can watch a keynote address Swartz gave at the F2C: Freedom to Connect 2012 event in Washington, D.C.
Swartz unfortunately, found himself on the wrong side of the law back in 2009 when he downloaded a massive amount of documents housed in the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts’ database, PACER. The PACER system houses the electronic documents of the courts and users of the system were charged 8 cents per page to access these documents. This did not set well with Swartz and his colleagues, so using a free trial license that was being offered to University libraries back then, he downloaded nearly 20 million pages before the government shut him out. The FBI investigated the issue but he was never charged.
In 2011, Swartz found himself the subject of a much more serious case as a result of him “fraudulently” downloading 4 million academic journals from the JSTOR database. He apparently gained access to a utility closet at MIT and attached a laptop computer to their network. He used this computer to download millions of academic journals with the intention of making them readily available to the public before MIT police caught him in the act. This made him the target of US Attorney Carmen Ortiz who along with Assistant U.S. Attorneys, Stephen P. Heymann and Scott L. Garland, pursued him fiercely. Many in the academic arena felt the case against Swartz was blown out of proportion and that the laws Ortiz was citing in her case were meant to be used against cyber bank robbers and the like. Swartz didn’t set out to gain anything from his actions but rather, allow free access to University research, much of which is publicly funded. Even JSTOR, the alleged victim in this case, “regretted being drawn into from the outset, since JSTOR’s mission is to foster widespread access to the world’s body of scholarly knowledge”. You can read their full statement regarding Aaron Swartz here.
The end result of all the prosecutions efforts was the untimely demise of Aaron Swartz who hanged himself in his New York apartment. His parent’s chided MIT and the prosecutors in a public statement:
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.
At the moment many people are simply stunned at the turn of events. Ortiz’ office has yet to offer an official statement, but did file a motion to dismiss charges against Swartz this past Monday which is standard practice when a defendant dies before going to trial. MIT President, Rafael Reif, released a statement which stated, “I want to express very clearly that I and all of us at MIT are extremely saddened by the death of this promising young man who touched the lives of so many. It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy.” He went on to appoint Professor Hal Abelson to lead an investigation into Swartz’s death and any role MIT may have played. Many feel that MIT could have defended Aaron more.
So what have we learned here? I believe the lessons are numerous. We should never take for granted the moments we have with people is the first that comes to my mind. I believe my gut reaction, as well as many others, would be to crucify Ortiz, but would that not be unfortunate in its end as well? My hope is that Ortiz and the federal government have learned a lesson here. The law is a cold and heartless beast, unless the practitioners of it use common sense and weigh the benefits of their actions against the benefits, or lack thereof, to the community at large. In the grand scheme of problems our world faces, the crime of making publicly funded information available to the common citizen for free seems to me to be the least of what we should be throwing legal resources towards. My words scarcely scratch the surface of the many facets of this situation. I wish I could better express my feelings in this situation. What I hope though is that you the reader will take a moment to learn about the causes that Swartz dedicated himself to. I am not placing him on a pedestal but I do recognize the positive contributions he made to a freer society and for that I am very appreciative.
If you would like to visit his memorial page, visit http://www.rememberaaronsw.com/.