Aaron Swartz – The cost of fighting the good fight

On January 11th 2013 programmer and internet freedom activist Aaron Swartz was found dead in his New York apartment having taken his own life. He was 26 years old. The tragic news shocked the technology community and resulted in emotional outpourings of sorrow and anger from many of his friends and colleagues. Perhaps the most profound appeared on Twitter from Sir Tim Berners-Lee who wrote ‘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.’


Aaron was known to suffer from depression and his suicide appears to be a terrible consequence of this illness, but there are many – including his family – who feel that the blame for his sad demise lies with another entity, that of the US Attorney’s office. At the time of his death Aaron was facing charges for multiple felonies related to his downloading of academic papers from JSTOR, a digital repository of journals and articles, via a laptop hidden in a cupboard on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) campus. Swartz’s supporters feel that the case against him was unnecessarily harsh, and was possibly linked to his public position of campaigner for copyright reforms and internet freedom. Whatever the motivations behind the case the result was that a twenty six year old man with no previous convictions and an outstanding reputation in the academic community was facing many years in prison and fines of up to a million dollars. Something that seemed so overwhelming that it might have actually led to him hanging himself as a way of escape.

In an official statement released in the aftermath of Swartz’s loss the family stated ‘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.’

Swartz had been a passionate innovator in the field of sharing information online. He was a central part of the team that wrote the RSS code that now enables news feeds, blogs, and podcasts to be delivered automatically. He was a pivotal figure in the writing of the Creative Commons license which allows creators to distribute and have others  redistribute their works freely while still maintaining an agreed level of ownership, he also worked on the Internet Archive whose goal it is to offer ‘universal access to knowledge’ for everyone, and was a co-founder of user generated news site Reddit.


He came to public prominence as an outspoken opponent to potentially restrictive legislation, such as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which sought to impose strict copyright controls on the internet. Swartz said of the act ‘This bill would be a huge, potentially permanent, loss. If we lost the ability to communicate with each other over the internet it would be a change to the bill of rights, the freedoms guaranteed in our constitution. The freedoms our country had been built on would be suddenly deleted.’ Along with other activists Swartz formed the advocacy group Demand Progress which petitioned congress and raised public awareness of the potential dangers they saw with SOPA. Eventually, with the help of significant companies such as Google and Wikipedia, the act was defeated but Swartz and his collaborators had made some powerful enemies.

The JSTOR incident wasn’t the first time that Swartz had come into contact with the US Government’s justice department. In 2008 the PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) database, which held all the United States Federal Court documents and charged eight cents per page to access them, was trialled as a free service in a small number of libraries across the US. Carl Malamud, head of the non profit group Public.resource.org urged activists to download as many of the records as possible in an attempt to circumvent the fee-based system and instead make the records (which were not under copyright) publically available for free. Swartz responded to the appeal and wrote a small Perl script which he loaded onto a computer in one of the libraries. This managed to obtain nearly twenty percent of the total records available (approx twenty million pages) before the government shut the trial down. Aaron subsequently found himself under investigation by the FBI, but after a couple of months the case against him was dropped mainly due to the fact that he hadn’t actually broken any laws.


JSTOR though, was more complicated. Swartz was a research fellow at Harvard, which gave him a JSTOR account, and as an academic he was also allowed onto the MIT campus as a visitor, with entitled access to the JSTOR servers. His decision to write a similar program to the one he used on PACER, and to hide a laptop on campus which downloaded a considerable amount of data, was obviously a misjudged one, but the response that followed was extraordinary. Swartz was arrested and eventually charged with numerous felonies, which if convicted would have had drastic implications on his future. The basis for the seriousness of the charges stems from current US laws which are, as is often the case around the world at the moment, struggling to pace with changes in technology. Under current legislation you can be charged with a felony if you are deemed to have broken the terms and services agreement of any website or online service that you use. Obviously this leaves open a certain amount of interpretation, otherwise anyone who ever used a false name on their Facebook account would be spending a few years in jail, but this is precisely why Swartz’s friends and supporters feel there was a great injustice acted out by the prosecutors.

JSTOR decided not to press charges against Swartz, although they did comment that his behaviour had been a ‘significant misuse’ of their service. It’s notable that a couple of days before Swartz’s suicide JSTOR actually made their records available to anyone if they signed up for a free account. The US Attorney’s Office did pursue Swartz, with lead prosecutor Carmen Ortiz famously stating that ‘Stealing is stealing’, but in a statement released after Swartz’s death Ortiz maintained that ‘At no time did this office ever seek – or ever tell Mr. Swartz’s attorneys that it intended to seek – maximum penalties under the law.’ Instead she asserted that the penalty should have been ‘a sentence that we would recommend to the judge of six months in a low security setting’.

Aaron Swartz’s death, and the circumstances surrounding it, have now triggered investigations at MIT, online petitions to have Ortiz removed from office, and moves by two members of Congress for the current legislation to be changed – under the working title of ‘Aaron’s Law’. For a young man who spent the majority of his life fighting for freedom of expression and information online it seems that even in his passing he could leave a significant impact for future generations. Swartz’s long time colleague Lawrence Lessig, himself a professor at Harvard Law school, said of Aaron;

‘This was one of those few technologists who looked up from his computer screen long enough to recognise how what he was doing could affect issues that he thought was important.’

The tragic nature of his death is a timely reminder that freedom in its many forms can be a costly and hard fought battleground, the outcome of which is always uncertain. Swartz seemed to see this long before the events of JSTOR, and warned us of how we must fight apathy and acceptance in the days ahead. 

‘It will happen again.’ Swartz confided in a speech after the SOPA campaign was over. ‘Sure, it will have yet another name, and maybe another excuse, and it will do its damage in a different way. But make no mistake: the enemies of the freedom to connect have not disappeared. The fire in those politicians’ eyes hasn’t been put out. There are a lot of people, a lot of powerful people, who want to clamp down on the internet. And to be honest, there aren’t a whole lot who have a vested interest in protecting it from all of that. Even some of the biggest companies, some of the biggest internet companies, to put it frankly, would benefit from a world in which their little competitors could get censored.

…We won this fight because everyone made themselves the hero of their own story. Everyone took it as their job to save this crucial freedom… If we forget that, if we let Hollywood rewrite the story so that it was just big company Google who stopped the bill, if we let them persuade us that we didn’t actually make a difference, and we start seeing it as someone else’s responsibility to do this work, and it’s our job to just go home and pop some popcorn and curl up on the couch to watch Transformers — well then, next time, they might just win. Let’s not let that happen.’

This article originally appeared in a shorter form on the PC Advisor website and in the print magazine as part of a monthly section I write entitled News Viewpoint. To see that version please click here, or purchase a copy of the fine magazine from your local newsagent.