It takes a person like Aaron Swartz to remind you how little you are actually doing to bring forth social, political and economic justice in this increasingly insane and sick world. I’m not exaggerating when I say his life was an inspiration. At 14 years old he helped start the RSS feed system, which so many now use to read content online. He also co-founded Reddit, and its sale to Conde Nast is what afforded him the resources to dedicate his life to the defense of a free and open internet. His most remarkable success in this regard was the creation of the organization Demand Progress, which was instrumental in defeating the internet censorship bill know as SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act).
He ran afoul of the law due to his actions in the fall of 2010 when he downloaded millions of academic journal articles from the nonprofit online database JSTOR. While JSTOR could have pursued charges against Aaron for his activities, they decided against it. However, our Federal Government was not so kind. They decided to make an example of Aaron and charged him with multiple felonies. Charges that carried up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines. Aaron was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment this past Friday, in an apparent suicide.
If you had asked me about Aaron Swartz three days ago I could have told you none of the above. This is despite the fact that I now spend pretty much all of my time trying to read through news and understand the true nature of the world around me. Even more pathetically, it is despite the fact that a close friend of mine had met Aaron this past summer and was trying to coordinate a time for us all to meet. Sadly, we never connected.
As part of my tribute to Aaron, I will commit myself even more fully to the cause of freedom in America. I spent the last 12 hours reading about him and I have compiled some of the most interesting excerpts from various sources below. Please take the time.
First from the official statement from his family and partner:
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.
Next from Lawrence Lessig, the director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and friend of Aaron. He writes:
Early on, and to its great credit, JSTOR figured “appropriate” out: They declined to pursue their own action against Aaron, and they asked the government to drop its. MIT, to its great shame, was not as clear, and so the prosecutor had the excuse he needed to continue his war against the “criminal” who we who loved him knew as Aaron.
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.
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.”
From the Huffington Post:
Swartz spent the last two years fighting federal hacking charges. In July 2011, prosecutor Scott Garland working under U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, a politician with her eye on the governor’s mansion, charged Swartz with four counts of felony misconduct — charges that were deemed outrageous by internet experts who understood the case, and wholly unnecessary by the parties Swartz was accused of wronging.
Swartz repeatedly sought to reduce the charges to a level below felony status, but prosecutors pressed on, adding additional charges so that by September 2012 Swartz faced 13 felony counts and up to half a century in prison.
Swartz’s friend Henry Farrell, a political scientist at George Washington University, also pointed at the DOJ. “They sought felony convictions with decades of prison time for actions which, if they were illegal at all, were at most misdemeanors.”
Had JSTOR wanted to pursue civil charges against Swartz for breach of contract, it could have. But JSTOR did not, and washed its hands of the whole affair.
Last June, Swartz told HuffPost that both JSTOR and MIT had advised prosecutors they were not interested in pursuing criminal or civil charges.
But the government pressed on, interpreting Swartz’s actions as a federal crime, alleging mass theft, damaged computers and wire fraud, and suggesting that Swartz stood to gain financially.
JSTOR issued a statement late on Saturday expressing regret at Swartz’s passing, criticizing his prosecution.
“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,” the statement reads. “At the same time, as one of the largest archives of scholarly literature in the world, we must be careful stewards of the information entrusted to us by the owners and creators of that content. To that end, Aaron returned the data he had in his possession and JSTOR settled any civil claims we might have had against him in June 2011.”
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.
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.
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 Washington Post:
I worry that Swartz’s prosecution is a sign that America is gradually losing the sense of humor that has made it the home of the world’s innovators and misfits. A generation ago, we hailed Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg as a hero. Today, our government throws the book at whistleblowers for leaking much less consequential information.
Our nation’s growing humorlessness won’t just mean that insubordinate idealists like Swartz lose their freedom or their lives. As our culture becomes steadily less accepting of people with Swartz’s irreverent attitude toward authority, we’ll all be poorer as a result. Revolutionary new technologies and ideas don’t come from people with a reverence for following the rules. They come from iconoclasts like Jobs, Wozniak, and Swartz. It’s a bad idea to lock them up and throw away the key.
Despite this horrible tragedy, based on the outpouring of disgust even from the mainstream media, I am optimistic that Aaron’s death might actually represent a turning point. An event that can shake people out of their normalcy bias and force them to accept the sad reality they have been loath to admit. That our criminal “justice” system has been completely and totally co-opted by a ruthless, greedy and immoral oligarch class that seems hell bent on throwing the American public into a neo-feudal nightmare of debt slavery and ignorance.
Aaron was a treasure and a gift to the species and only a very sick and dying culture would have led to his premature end. We must look at ourselves in the mirror, accept this reality and change it immediately.
There is a petition out to remove the federal prosecutor, Carmen Ortiz, from her post due to her role in Aaron’s death. I signed it and I suggest you do as well, here.
Finally, please watch this video where Aaron describes his successful battle against SOPA. If you are pressed for time start at minute 15, where he begins to describe his encounter with an irrational U.S. Senator with fury in his eyes.
In Tribute to a special soul,