Endless Questions

It’s always difficult to report that some one young has died.  It’s even worse when the circumstances of death seem beyond explanation as always aaron swartzseems to be the case with suicides.  The story of online activist Aaron Swartz is filled with glimpses into a brilliant mind, a passionate advocate for access to knowledge, a search for justice against suppression and censorship and our government who seem intent on prosecuting the wrong people these days for the wrong reasons.

Aaron Swartz, the Internet political activist who co-wrote the initial specification for RSS, has committed suicide, a relative told CNN Saturday. He was 26.

“Great minds carry heavy burdens,” wrote one user on Reddit, a popular social media website that Swartz helped develop and popularize following a merger in 2006.

Swartz also co-founded Demand Progress, a political action group that campaigns against Internet censorship.

A young prodigy, his passion pushed limits and landed him in legal troubles in recent years.

In 2011, he was arrested in Boston for alleged computer fraud and illegally obtaining documents from protected computers. He was later indicted from an incident in which he allegedly stole millions of online documents from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He pleaded not guilty in September, according to MIT’s “The Tech” newspaper.

Yes.  Swartz helped develop Reddit and RSS feed.  He will now be best known as a victim of  government prosecution overkill.  It’s an odd story in the endless one where big businesses and government work hard to make sure that anything slightly worth knowing must be associated with some one’s exorbitant profit and a form of ownership.

Congress passed the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) in 1986 to deal with the then-new problem of malicious computer hacking. Because the law was passed when the Internet was still in its infancy, the exact scope of its provisions remains murky today. For example, there have been cases of employers suing employees under the CFAA for using their employer-provided credentials to access information on the corporate intranet that wasn’t intended for them.

In 2008, the government prosecuted a woman under the CFAA after her “cyber-bullying” of a teenager contributed to her suicide. The government argued that the woman’s actions violated the MySpace user agreement, and therefore constituted unauthorized access to MySpace servers. The woman was convicted, but her conviction was later thrown out by an appeals court.

The government seems to be making a similar argument in the Swartz case. It says he violated the CFAA when he “intentionally accessed computers belonging to MIT and JSTOR without authorization, and thereby obtained from protected computers information whose value exceeded $5,000—namely, digitized journal articles from JSTOR’s archive.” By breaking Swartz’s actions up into five different date ranges and charging him under two different sections of the CFAA for each, the government has ginned up a total of 10 counts, each of which is theoretically punishable by five years in prison. For good measure, they also charged Swartz with one count of “recklessly damaging” a computer under the CFAA and two counts of wire fraud.

It’s a stretch to say that Swartz gained unauthorized access to JSTOR’s servers. Initially, he did have authorization to access both the network and the JSTOR website. But according to the indictment, “each user must agree and acknowledge that they cannot download or export contents from JSTOR’s computer servers with automated computer programs such as Web robots, spiders, or scrapers.” The government seems to believe that once Swartz ran afoul of this contractual requirement, he became an unauthorized user and therefore a felon under the CFAA.

But treating the violation of such use restrictions, or the evasion of efforts to enforce them, as a felony is overkill. Automated crawling of websites is an extremely common activity that can have social benefits. While crawling a public (or, in the case of JSTOR semi-public) website against the wishes of its owner is generally bad manners, it’s hardly comparable to hacking into someone’s computer to access private information.

Websites have been known to use their terms of use for anti-competitive purposes.

I have a major soft spot for hacktivists like Swartz.   Not only is it a matter of being awed by their brilliance, but by what appears to be an ethos 250px-Aaron_Swartz_profilebased on just getting knowledge for the sake of knowledge.  There’s a basic underlying democratic principle in the idea that human knowledge belongs to all of us.  Evidently, JSTOR must’ve agreed with him.

Swartz’s subsequent struggle for money to offset legal fees to fight the Department of Justice and stay afloat was no secret.

After the September charges came down, the wife of Creative Commons founder Larry Lessig – social justice lawyer Bettina Neuefeind – established and organized the site free.aaronsw.com to raise money for his defense.

Demand Progress – itself an organization focused on online campaigns dedicated to fighting for civil liberties, civil rights, and progressive government reform – compared The Justice Department’s indictment of Swartz to “trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library.”

Swartz’s suicide came two days after JSTOR announced it is releasing “more than 4.5 million articles” to the public.

So, this isn’t the most political or strategic post we’ve ever put on the blog.  Aaron’s passing isn’t one of those newsy obits that will get played at the end of the year in some tribute gala.  I think, however, we need to notice his tragic death, his brilliant short, life and his commitment to an open internet with accessible content.  His story is really one about our freedom to know which is really the final frontier of our humanity.

15 Comments on “Endless Questions”

  1. dakinikat says:

    RIP, Aaron Swartz

    Cory Doctorow at 4:53 am Sat, Jan 12


    The post-Reddit era in Aaron’s life was really his coming of age. His stunts were breathtaking. At one point, he singlehandedly liberated 20 percent of US law. PACER, the system that gives Americans access to their own (public domain) case-law, charged a fee for each such access. After activists built RECAP (which allowed its users to put any caselaw they paid for into a free/public repository), Aaron spent a small fortune fetching a titanic amount of data and putting it into the public domain. The feds hated this. They smeared him, the FBI investigated him, and for a while, it looked like he’d be on the pointy end of some bad legal stuff, but he escaped it all, and emerged triumphant.

    He also founded a group called DemandProgress, which used his technological savvy, money and passion to leverage victories in huge public policy fights. DemandProgress’s work was one of the decisive factors in last year’s victory over SOPA/PIPA, and that was only the start of his ambition.

  2. bostonboomer says:

    Thanks for posting this, Dak. I hadn’t heard about this case, but it’s a familiar story. The government always finds ways to use laws against the least powerful people while corporations and big banks get away with murder. So Aaron was hounded to suicide because he got access to journal articles??! Disgusting. Eric Holder should be hounding Goldman Sachs, not 20-something computer hackers.

    RIP Aaron Schwartz. What a waste.

    • dakinikat says:

      He had a history of depression, I’m sure that having the government threaten to put him in jail for decades over this didn’t help his situation.

    • dakinikat says:

      I think it’s an important story of our time even though it’s likely to get little ink outside the blogosphere and the wonksphere. Governments always go after intellectuals and they go after the ones trying to get information out to the people. Age old story.

    • The government always finds ways to use laws against the least powerful people while corporations and big banks get away with murder. So Aaron was hounded to suicide because he got access to journal articles??! Disgusting. Eric Holder should be hounding Goldman Sachs, not 20-something computer hackers.

      Agreed.I too am disgusted with this.

  3. dakinikat says:

    Glenn Greenwald ‏@ggreenwald

    The official statement of Aaron Swartz’s family – read the second-to-last paragraph http://is.gd/wo2YxJ

    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.

    • RalphB says:

      His death is a real tragedy and a sign of our dysfunctional times. His accomplishments will live a lot longer than those who persecuted him.

  4. dakinikat says:

    How Aaron Swartz Helped Saved My Ass
    by Mike Elk


  5. dakinikat says:

    When he was all of 14, Aaron Swartz co-authored the first specification of RSS, the code now ubiquitous across the internet that allows for the syndication of content.

    He went on to lead a storied life of innovation, co-founding the wildly popular Web syndication site, Reddit, as well as the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, the organization known for its ardent activism on behalf of the candidacies of such progressive favorite as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla. He also co-founded his own advocacy


  6. Fannie says:

    I am sorry to hear about Aaron Swartz, I didn’t realize just how little I knew, my condolences to his family and friends. My first thoughts went hand in hand with all this “dysfunctioning” going on in all aspects of our lives, and those that surround us.

    We have been touching on several issues on this blog, all related to stress and suicides, and deaths, and our government, and mental depression and anxiety in our society. Dak you hit it on the head, because we have been asking “endless questions”……………some of which I don’t know if we can ever find the answers to. You and the others here have given us alot of insight, and BB’s understanding, and JJ’s interconnections too of what in the world is going on, and why.
    We see all the time bombs just waiting to go off.

    I look at Aaron’s face, and it is one so youthful and sweet. I am so sorry. And I can’t help but think why this way out, why weren’t interventions in place to help him, where were the “hotlines” , where were the first responders? I can only guess that like alot of people who don’t see a way out, especially those looking at prison time, well, I’ve heard it said, “you don’t have alot to lose”, and that is why they choose to go on another journey into the blue skies.

    I frown on the faces of those within the justice department, who help create things that are far worst for people who are suffering depression, and how they seem not to care. Are they desensitized because of the numbers of people who suffer from lost of home, of jobs, from lack of healthcare, from abuse and violence, and drug use, and mass killings, as well as being unable to pay for food, gas and electricity, and most importantly from a lack of identidy………..It’s lousy, and like you said, the dream is gone, it’s all gone, and we are all so stressed out.

    R.I.P. Blue Skies Aaron Swartz

  7. bostonboomer says:

    The FBI is now looking into the Steubenville situation. Who wants to bet me that they’ll end up taking down the Anonymous group that targeted the perpetrators and police cover up?


    • dakinikat says:

      That’s what they’ll do unless the activists behind justice get some good press and we don’t let them get bushwhacked! You’d think we’d have learned from the 60s and 70s.

  8. This kind of prosecution of activist like Aaron Swartz is a modern day form of control, like the printers of the middle 1500’s in France, who could not print anything (a form of spreading information to the people) unless “approved” by the government. Like so many other pages of history, where getting information to the people was seen as a threat to the establishment.

    • NW Luna says:

      Going after the people who free up information so that the rest of us have access to it, instead of/in spite of the rich and powerful. So sad and so wrong. Censorship kills.