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Re: <nettime> RIP: Aaron H. Swartz (November 8, 1986 -- January 11, 2013
Felix Stalder on Sun, 13 Jan 2013 10:39:04 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> RIP: Aaron H. Swartz (November 8, 1986 -- January 11, 2013)

[The prosecution of Swartz by the DOJ and the unwillingness of MIT
(which prides itself on its hacker tradition) to support him, shines
a light of another of the many layers of cooperation between the
security apparatuses and academia. See the statement of the family at
the end of this article.]

The inspiring heroism of Aaron Swartz

The internet freedom activist committed suicide on Friday at age 26,
but his life was driven by courage and passion

Glenn Greenwald


Aaron Swartz, the computer programmer and internet freedom activist,
committed suicide on Friday in New York at the age of 26. As the
incredibly moving remembrances from his friends such as Cory Doctorow
and Larry Lessig attest, he was unquestionably brilliant but also
- like most everyone - a complex human being plagued by demons and
flaws. For many reasons, I don't believe in whitewashing someone's
life or beatifying them upon death. But, to me, much of Swartz's
tragically short life was filled with acts that are genuinely and, in
the most literal and noble sense, heroic. I think that's really worth
thinking about today.

At the age of 14, Swartz played a key role in developing the RSS
software that is still widely used to enable people to manage what
they read on the internet. As a teenager, he also played a vital role
in the creation of Reddit, the wildly popular social networking news
site. When Conde Nast purchased Reddit, Swartz received a substantial
sum of money at a very young age. He became something of a legend
in the internet and programming world before he was 18. His path to
internet mogul status and the great riches it entails was clear, easy
and virtually guaranteed: a path which so many other young internet
entrepreneurs have found irresistible, monomaniacally devoting
themselves to making more and more money long after they have more
than they could ever hope to spend.

But rather obviously, Swartz had little interest in devoting his life
to his own material enrichment, despite how easy it would have been
for him. As Lessig wrote: "Aaron had literally done nothing in his
life 'to make money' . . . Aaron was always and only working for (at
least his conception of) the public good."

Specifically, he committed himself to the causes in which he
so passionately believed: internet freedom, civil liberties,
making information and knowledge as available as possible. Here
he is in his May, 2012 keynote address at the Freedom To Connect
conference discussing the role he played in stopping SOPA, the
movie-industry-demanded legislation that would have vested the
government with dangerous censorship powers over the internet.

Critically, Swartz didn't commit himself to these causes merely by
talking about them or advocating for them. He repeatedly sacrificed
his own interests, even his liberty, in order to defend these values
and challenge and subvert the most powerful factions that were their
enemies. That's what makes him, in my view, so consummately heroic.

In 2008, Swartz targeted Pacer, the online service that provides
access to court documents for a per-page fee. What offended Swartz and
others was that people were forced to pay for access to public court
documents that were created at public expense. Along with a friend,
Swartz created a program to download millions of those documents and
then, as Doctorow wrote, "spent a small fortune fetching a titanic
amount of data and putting it into the public domain." For that act of
civil disobedience, he was investigated and harassed by the FBI, but
never charged.

But in July 2011, Swartz was arrested for allegedly targeting JSTOR,
the online publishing company that digitizes and distributes scholarly
articles written by academics and then sells them, often at a high
price, to subscribers. As Maria Bustillos detailed, none of the
money goes to the actual writers (usually professors) who wrote the
scholarly articles - they are usually not paid for writing them - but
instead goes to the publishers.

This system offended Swartz (and many other free-data activists)
for two reasons: it charged large fees for access to these articles
but did not compensate the authors, and worse, it ensured that huge
numbers of people are denied access to the scholarship produced by
America's colleges and universities. The indictment filed against
Swartz alleged that he used his access as a Harvard fellow to the
JSTOR system to download millions of articles with the intent to
distribute them online for free; when he was detected and his access
was cut off, the indictment claims he then trespassed into an MIT
computer-wiring closet in order to physically download the data
directly onto his laptop.

Swartz never distributed any of these downloaded articles. He never
intended to profit even a single penny from anything he did, and never
did profit in any way. He had every right to download the articles
as an authorized JSTOR user; at worst, he intended to violate the
company's "terms of service" by making the articles available to
the public. Once arrested, he returned all copies of everything he
downloaded and vowed not to use them. JSTOR told federal prosecutors
that it had no intent to see him prosecuted, though MIT remained
ambiguous about its wishes.

But federal prosecutors ignored the wishes of the alleged "victims".
Led by a federal prosecutor in Boston notorious for her overzealous
prosecutions, the DOJ threw the book at him, charging Swartz with
multiple felonies which carried a total sentence of several decades in
prison and $1 million in fines.

Swartz's trial on these criminal charges was scheduled to begin in
two months. He adamantly refused to plead guilty to a felony because
he did not want to spend the rest of his life as a convicted felon
with all the stigma and rights-denials that entails. The criminal
proceedings, as Lessig put it, already put him in a predicament where
"his wealth [was] bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the
financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking
the ire of a district court judge."

To say that the DOJ's treatment of Swartz was excessive and vindictive
is an extreme understatement. When I wrote about Swartz's plight last
August, I wrote that he was "being prosecuted by the DOJ with obscene
over-zealousness". 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

Nobody knows for sure why federal prosecutors decided to pursue Swartz
so vindictively, as though he had committed some sort of major crime
that deserved many years in prison and financial ruin. Some theorized
that the DOJ hated him for his serial activism and civil disobedience.
Others speculated that, as Doctorow put it, "the feds were chasing
down all the Cambridge hackers who had any connection to Bradley
Manning in the hopes of turning one of them."

I believe it has more to do with what I told the New York Times' Noam
Cohen for an article he wrote on Swartz's case. Swartz's activism,
I argued, was waged as part of one of the most vigorously contested
battles - namely, the war over how the internet is used and who
controls the information that flows on it - and that was his real
crime in the eyes of the US government: challenging its authority
and those of corporate factions to maintain a stranglehold on that
information. In that above-referenced speech on SOPA, Swartz discussed
the grave dangers to internet freedom and free expression and assembly
posed by the government's efforts to control the internet with
expansive interpretations of copyright law and other weapons to limit
access to information.

That's a major part of why I consider him heroic. He wasn't merely
sacrificing himself for a cause. It was a cause of supreme importance
to people and movements around the world - internet freedom - and he
did it by knowingly confronting the most powerful state and corporate
factions because he concluded that was the only way to achieve these

Suicide is an incredibly complicated phenomenon. I didn't know Swartz
nearly well enough even to form an opinion about what drove him to
do this; I had a handful of exchanges with him online in which we
said nice things about each other's work and I truly admired him. I'm
sure even his closest friends and family are struggling to understand
exactly what caused him to defy his will to live by taking his own

But, despite his public and very sad writings about battling
depression, it only stands to reason that a looming criminal trial
that could send him to prison for decades played some role in this;
even if it didn't, this persecution by the DOJ is an outrage and an
offense against all things decent, for the reasons Lessig wrote today:

    "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.

    "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.

    "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'."

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.

Swartz knew all of this. But he forged ahead anyway. He could have
easily opted for a life of great personal wealth, status, prestige and
comfort. He chose instead to fight - selflessly, with conviction and
purpose, and at great risk to himself - for noble causes to which he
was passionately devoted. That, to me, isn't an example of heroism;
it's the embodiment of it, its purest expression. It's the attribute
our country has been most lacking.

I always found it genuinely inspiring to watch Swartz exude this
courage and commitment at such a young age. 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 official statement of Swartz's family:

    "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 US 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

This sort of unrestrained prosecutorial abuse is, unfortunately, far
from uncommon. It usually destroys people without attention or notice.
Let's hope - and work to ensure that - the attention generated by
Swartz's case prompts some movement toward accountability and reform.


-|- http://felix.openflows.com ------------------------ books out now:
*|Cultures & Ethics of Sharing/Kulturen & Ethiken des Teilens UIP 2012
*|Vergessene Zukunft. Radikale Netzkulturen in Europa. transcript 2012
*|Deep Search. The Politics of Searching Beyond Google. Studienv. 2009
*|Mediale Kunst/Media Arts Zurich.13 Positions. Scheidegger&Spiess2008
*|Manuel Castells and the Theory of the Network Society.Polity P. 2006
*|Open Cultures and the Nature of Networks. Ed Futura / Revolver, 2005

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