Aaron Swartz, the babyfaced godfather of free information, champion of the open world, defender of our right to know things, has taken his own life this week. Many in the internet community say that the pressure of an overzealous US prosecution team, seeking to send him to prison for 50 years for the simple crime of downloading some unprotected academic papers with the intent of making them freely available online caused him to do it.
An enthusiastic internet activist and information pioneer, Swartz was responsible at age 14 for the creation of the RSS specification used to feed news stories from one website to another. He also founded Infogami, which later became what we know today as Reddit at which he was a co-founder. His activist group launched the campaigns against the SOPA internet censorship bill. He worked with Tim Berners Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web at MIT. He was a fellow at the Harvard Ethics Center Lab on Institutional Corruption. Other projects Aaron worked on included web.py, tor2web, the Open Library, and the Chrome port of HTTPS Everywhere. Aaron co-founded the Creative Commons.
In short, there are few aspects of free information on the internet that do not have Aaron’s fingerprints on them. But this year, Aaron was to worry about what happened to his own fingerprints. Because Aaron was to become a felon.
In July 2011, Swartz was arrested for allegedly hacking JSTOR, an online publishing company that distributes academic articles written by scholars for sometimes large sums of money which goes straight to the publishers, not the academics. Swartz felt it was a tragedy that the work of our greatest minds was being sold for cash by a private company with the thinkers themselves not receiving any of it. The information had been written for free. The thoughts of a great mind to be shared for the good of humanity. So why was some company in the middle making huge profits off that and deciding who should and should not have access to the information ? Why was that information being denied to people ?
As a user at MIT, he had unfettered access to this information, but he felt that everyone should have access to it. It should not be restricted to a few special universities who paid fees to some company who did nothing more than archive it and limit access to it in order to make huge profits. Swartz decided this was unfair and that the information should be free for everyone. So he set about bulk-downloading it. With nothing more than some python scripts and a copy of curl, he setup a computer to begin sucking down the data. When JSTOR noticed, they tried to block him by IP address and even MAC address. He changed these, and brought a computer from home into MIT in order to gain faster access.
Swartz did not actually distribute any of these articles he downloaded. He certainly had no intention of profiting from his actions nor did he receive any money. He was legitimately allowed to download the articles as an authorised user of the system and his only “crime” was a violation of the company’s “terms of service” if he later chose to make the articles public. When arrested, he handed over all the information and promised he would not use them. The company, JSTOR, refused to pursue him for it and requested that he not be charged, though MIT failed to make a clear statement about their wish that he not be charged for using their systems for what could possibly be twisted into being a crime.
However, the FBI ignored the wishes of the network owner and rights owners. US District attorney Carmen Ortiz who is famous for overzealous prosecutions and extorting guilty pleas out of defendents via the threat of grossly disproportionate jail terms, charged Swartz with an increasing number of felonies carrying a total sentence of up to five decades in prison and over a million USD in fines.
Faced with financial ruin, having exhausted all of the money he acquired through the sale of Reddit and unable to gain government legal assistance, Aaron Swartz faced the prospect of decades in jail and fines he could not pay. Already suffering from depression and medical problems, the unjust persecution by federal prosecutors and the threat of having his life destroyed just because he wanted information and learning to be free and not in the hands of some corporation which resulted him being treated like a terrorist took a great toll on Swartz. Just two months before his trial for “unauthorized access” to computers under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, Swartz ended his own life.
This January the 11th of 2013, Aaron Swartz, 26 years old, committed suicide. And the internet lost a true pioneer. A champion of justice. A campaigner for freedom of information. A man who sought no money but only wanted everyone to have equal access to information. A man who had created free libraries, models for sharing information without restrictive copyrights, who had worked with the founder of the world wide web and who had dedicated his life to helping bring the combined works of human intellect together for everyone to learn from. To break down the artificial walls keeping information from the masses and knowledge to the people.
A man who developed some of the most important technologies that make the internet what it is today. Without Creative Commons we would not have Wikipedia. Without Demand Progress the US (and likely the rest of the world) would have SOPA. The internet would be censored and we would not have copyright-free user contributed encyclopedia and news fora or crowd-sourced news feeds.
The internet owes Aaron Swartz a huge debt as a campaigner for and developer of free information technologies. And the US government has a huge amount to answer for in their overzealous persecution of him under the guise of hacking and fraud laws when all he did was use a web script to download a collection of documents he already had legitimate access to.
The internet mourns this week and it has made its voice known. The brave knight who struck down SOPA has fallen. The outpouring of grief and support for him has been palpable and many have said that this should be the cause, the tipping point where computer crime gets reformed and we stop allowing governments to persecute people and destroy their lives just for making information available to everyone. I’d like to highlight a few of the things that great people on the internet have said about him.
We used to have a fight about how much the internet would grieve if he died. I was right, but the last word you get in as the still living is a hollow thing, trailing off, as it does, into oblivion. I love Aaron. I loved Aaron. There are no words to can contain love, to cloth it in words is to kill it, to mummify it and hope that somewhere in the heart of a reader, they have the strength and the magic to resurrect it. I can only say I love him. That I will always love him, and that I known for years I would. Aaron was a boy, not big, who cast a shadow across the world. But for me, he will always be that person who made me love him. He was so frustrating, and we fought. But we fought like what we were: two difficult people who couldn’t escape loving each other.
On the last day I saw him, he grabbed me in the rain while my car was blocking the road and held me and said “I love you.” I don’t know if I said it back. Not that time. I had always told him. Sometimes I told him when he didn’t have it in him to say. I’d say “I love you, and you love me, too” and he would just hold me.
- Quinn Norton, Aaron’s partner. Here.
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.
Today, we grieve for the extraordinary and irreplaceable man that we have lost.
- Aaron’s family.
For a long time, Aaron was more comfortable reading books than talking to humans (he once told me something like, “even talking to very smart people is hard, but if I just sit down and read their books, I get their most considered and insightful thoughts condensed in a beautiful and efficient form. I can learn from books faster than I can from talking to the authors.”). His passion for the written word, for open knowledge, and his flair for self-promotion, sometimes produced spectacular results, even before the events that proved to be his undoing.
If we believe the prosecutor’s allegations against him, Aaron had hoped to liberate the millions of scientific and scholarly articles he had downloaded from JSTOR, releasing them so that anyone could read them, or analyze them as a single giant dataset, something Aaron had done before. While his methods were provocative, the goal that Aaron died fighting for — freeing the publicly-funded scientific literature from a publishing system that makes it inaccessible to most of those who paid for it — is one that we should all support.
Moreover, the situation Aaron found himself in highlights the injustice of U.S. computer crime laws, and particularly their punishment regimes. Aaron’s act was undoubtedly political activism, and taking such an act in the physical world would, at most, have a meant he faced light penalties akin to trespassing as part of a political protest. Because he used a computer, he instead faced long-term incarceration. This is a disparity that EFF has fought against for years. Yesterday, it had tragic consequences. Lawrence Lessig has called for this tragedy to be a basis for reform of computer crime laws, and the overzealous prosecutors who use them. We agree.
- Peter Ecklersley, Electronic Frontier Foundation. Here.
In a column, I rued the demise of Napster, the music-sharing service, but remained hopeful bordering on confident that the Internet would thwart the growing attacks on openness and sharing. A promising harbinger was the then-emerging Creative Commons, founded by Larry Lessig. I noted that Aaron was working on the project and called him “an object lesson to the dinosaurs who run Hollywood and think they can control the uncontrollable,” adding, “The young people of this world will ultimately decide how this turns out.” Aaron was 15 at the time.
The case against Aaron, an object lesson of what happens when authority is cynically abused by the people in power, threatened more than Aaron’s liberty and his great work. It threatened us all.
An inchoate anger always mixes with sadness when someone dies so young. But today I’m seething at Aaron’s prosecution by a federal government that has rewarded torturers and banksters while in this case twisting the law to turn what amounts to minor trespassing into a “crime” worthy of decades in jail.
- Dan Gillmor, Journalist and media entrepreneur. Here.
Aaron did not ‘hack’ the JSTOR website for all reasonable definitions of ‘hack,’. Aaron wrote a handful of basic python scripts that first discovered the URLs of journal articles and then used curl to request them.
If I had taken the stand as planned and had been asked by the prosecutor whether Aaron’s actions were ‘wrong,’ I would probably have replied that what Aaron did would better be described as ‘inconsiderate.’ In the same way it is inconsiderate to write a check at the supermarket while a dozen people queue up behind you or to check out every book at the library needed for a History 101 paper.
- Alex Stamos, the CTO of Artemis Internet and an expert witness on Stamos’ defence team.
As a volunteer, he helped make the RECAP system to offer free public access to public domain government court documents. He took the bold step of seeding this system by going to a public library to download the public domain and then uploaded the documents to the Internet Archive– this got him in trouble with the FBI. Now many millions of public domain documents have been used by over six million people for free, including researchers that could never have afforded the high fees to gain access.
If there is a sin in the open world it is locking up the public domain. Aaron took selfless action.
Aaron was steadfast in his dedication to building a better and open world. Selfless. Willing to cause change.
He is among the best spirits of the Internet generation. I am crushed by his loss, but will continue to be enlightened by his work and dedication.
To mourn, I just watched this video with my son. May I suggest you seek out your children and do the same.
May a hero and founder of our open world rest in peace.
- Brewster Kahle. Founder and Digital Librarian of the Internet Archive. Here.
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.
Aaron had literally done nothing in his life “to make money.” He was fortunate Reddit turned out as it did, but from his work building the RSS standard, to his work architecting Creative Commons, to his work liberating public records, to his work building a free public library, to his work supporting Change Congress/FixCongressFirst/Rootstrikers, and then Demand Progress, Aaron was always and only working for (at least his conception of) the public good. He was brilliant, and funny. 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.
Fifty years in jail, charges our government. Somehow, we need to get beyond the “I’m right so I’m right to nuke you” ethics that dominates our time. That begins with one word: Shame.
One word, and endless tears.
- Larry Lessig. Peer, co-founder of Creative Commons and long time friend of Swartz. Here.
Aaron accomplished some incredible things in his life. His stunts were breathtaking. At one point, he singlehandedly liberated 20 percent of US law. 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.
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.
- Corey Doctrow. Founder of Boing Boing, Blogger, author, journalist and long time friend of Aaron. Here.
Aaron, I’m so sorry to see you go. You were an amazing person who did incredible work that helps us all out and I really wish you stayed for many more decades so you could continue making society a better place to be. I’ll really miss you.
- Matt Haughey. Founder of Metafilter. Here.
RIP Aaron Swartz. What a terrible, tragic waste.
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.
- Tweets from Tim Berners Lee, creator of the World Wide Web and good friend to Aaron Swartz. Here.
Shocked and saddened to hear about the suicide of Aaron Swartz, whom I first met when he was 14. @doctorow’s eulogy http://bit.ly/VSk8Td
- Tim O’Reilly (@timoreilly)
Aaron was a friend and a brilliant mind… he had an enormous intellect — again, a brilliant mind — but also an enormous capacity for empathy. He was a great person. I’m dumbfounded and heartbroken.
- John Gruber. Daring Fireball.
Oh, and BTW, I’ll miss you all.
- Aaron Swartz on his own website in 2007, in a post entitled “If I ever get hit by a truck”. Here.
If 2011′s Time’s Person of the Year was “The Protestor “, then surely 2013′s should be “Aaron Swartz. Defender of Information Freedom”.
This is Aaron’s keynote at the Freedom to Connect 2012 seminar in Washington. It is the video which Brewster Kahle commented that she had shown her son. It is is a video about how a person can stand up and make a difference. How we can all stand up and make a difference. How we HAVE to.