A suicide is always a tragedy, but that of 26-year-old Aaron Swartz on Friday has reverberated with particular force across the internet. That’s partly because of the enormous sense of waste – he was a tech prodigy, helping develop the code for RSS when he was just 14 – and partly because the internet was Swartz’s home, where he hung out and talked to people and built things that many of us use today. But it’s also because of a looming and controversial court case, which his family believe contributed to his decision to take his own life – and which put him at the frontline of an ongoing battle over how much of the world’s information should be free.
In his own words
- Swartz was a passionate advocate for the sharing of knowledge. In 2008, he wrote a manifesto: “Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves.”
- He played a key role in the successful campaign to prevent the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). You can watch him explain how, and why, in this video of his May 2012 keynote speech: “How we stopped SOPA”, at the Freedom to Connect conference in Washington DC.
- Swartz was a fluent and original writer on a variety of subjects – such as the value of making mistakes, the attraction of the centre ground, and Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.
- “Everything gets colored by the sadness.” In 2007 he wrote about his experience with depression.
- “I think he could have revolutionized American (and worldwide) politics)…[but] somewhere in there, Aaron’s recklessness put him right in harm’s way,” writes Cory Doctorow, a friend of Swartz who had known him since he was a teenager. In 2011, Swartz was arrested and accused of downloading millions of academic papers from JSTOR, the subscription-only digital library, using a computer network at MIT.
- The trial was set to begin in April, with a preliminary hearing due within weeks. If Swartz had been convicted on the charges, he faced “up to 35 years in prison, to be followed by three years of supervised release, restitution, forfeiture and a fine of up to $1 million”, according to the US Attorney’s office in Massachusetts.
- The Wall Street Journal reported that days before he committed suicide, “Swartz’s hopes for a deal with federal prosecutors fell apart”.
- Following his death, Swartz’s family and partner condemned the actions of the attorney involved in his case, and MIT. “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.”
- Prosecutor as bully? Lawrence Lessig, professor of law at Harvard, and a long-time mentor of Swartz, argues that “…if what the government alleged was true… then what [Aaron] did was wrong.” But he adds: “All this shows is that if the government proved its case, some punishment was appropriate. So what was that appropriate punishment? Was Aaron a terrorist? Or a cracker trying to profit from stolen goods?… 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. ”
- “I know a criminal hack when I see it, and Aaron’s downloading of journal articles from an unlocked closet is not an offense worth 35 years in jail.” – Alex Stamos, who was due to stand as an expert witness in Swartz’s trial.
- More than 13,000 people have signed a petition to the White House, calling for the removal of District Attorney Carmen Ortiz from office for overreach in the Swartz case.
- Jay Rosen, NYU professor, provides context on Swartz’s philosophy of shared knowledge. “This person of immense talent and crazy brilliance devoted himself almost completely to public goods— like the RSS 1.0 specs, the Open Library, and the fight against SOPA. He could have tried to develop the next YouTube and sell it to Google for a billion dollars… but the only thing that really mattered to him was the fight for internet freedom, which included taking part in democratic politics.”
- Writing for the New Yorker, Caleb Crain remembers how Swartz resurrected the website of Lingua Franca. “Because bankruptcy leaves behind a legal mess, the odds are that Lingua Franca would have had no online afterlife at all without his intervention,” writes Crain. “Though I’m a believer in copyright, I was grateful.”
- The president of MIT has announced an inquiry into the university’s actions over the case. “I have asked Professor Hal Abelson to lead a thorough analysis of MIT’s involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in fall 2010 up to the present.”
- JSTOR’s official statement: “The case is one that we ourselves had regretted being drawn into from the outset, since JSTOR’s mission is to foster widespread access to the world’s body of scholarly knowledge… Aaron returned the data he had in his possession and JSTOR settled any civil claims we might have had against him in June 2011.”