Sunday, January 13, 2013

Aaron Swartz

The news about Aaron Swarz's suicide comes as such a terrible shock. I have been following his career for several years now -- primarily through his blog posts, and articles about him at other places. His activism in the cause of free information and the open web has been as admirable as his technical wizardry and accomplishments were legendary.

There have been very moving tributes from his family and partner, and ex-lover. His friends -- Cory Doctorow, Lawrence Lessig (1, 2), and Peter Eckersley (at EFF) -- talk about his generosity and intensity.

The federal lawsuit following Aaron's JSTOR hack at MIT has been mentioned by many. His family and partner are quite blunt:

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.

And so is Lawrence Lessig:

... 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? Or was this something completely different?

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.

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] 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.

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See also: Henry Farrell, Boing Boing for more links.

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Update: MIT's new president, Prof. Rafael Reif has asked for a thorough review of MIT's actions in the prosecution of Aaron:

I... t pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy.

... 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. I have asked that this analysis describe the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took.

See also the reminiscences by danah boyd, Caleb Crain.