- Sage Ross/Creative Commons
Aaron Swartz, the 26-year-old computer genius, activist, and technology innovator known as a hero of the open-access movement—which promotes use of the Internet to provide free and easy access to the world’s knowledge—committed suicide last Friday in New York City, according to authorities and various media outlets. He was a Safra fellow studying ethics at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society in July 2011 when a federal grand jury indicted him on charges of gaining illegal access to JSTOR, a subscription-only service for distributing scientific and literary journals, and downloading five million articles and documents—nearly the entire library, according to Insidehighered.com.
Swartz helped create RSS—a family of Web feed formats used to publish frequently updated works (blog entries, news headlines, audio, and video) in a standardized format—at the age of 14. He later became an Internet folk hero, according to the New York Times, fighting to make many Web files free and open to the public. The Los Angeles Times reported that he studied sociology as a freshman at Stanford, but left after a year because, he later explained, he “didn’t find it a very intellectual atmosphere.” He then moved to Cambridge, where he began work on a project that in 2005 turned into the social news website Reddit, which taps “the wisdom of the crowds” by letting users submit and rank news and other online content. Reddit was purchased by Condé Nast in 2006 for a little less than $5 million, according to Forbes.
Although Swartz had legal access to JSTOR through his Harvard affiliation, the indictment describes his use of an MIT guest account to download the articles, something he had no legal right to do. Swartz, who was open about his struggle with depression, pleaded not guilty; his trial in federal court was scheduled to begin next month. He faced a jail term of as much as 35 years and fines of up to $1 million.
JSTOR has released a statement in the wake of Swartz’s death: “We have had inquiries about JSTOR’s view of this sad event given the charges against Aaron and the trial scheduled for April. 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. 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.”
The statement issued by Swartz’s family called his death “not simply a personal tragedy,” and blamed a “criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach,” as well as decisions made by leaders at MIT:
The U.S. 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.
In a January 13 e-mail, MIT president Rafael Reif wrote of the many members of the MIT community who held Swartz in high regard and stated, “It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy.” Reif went on to say that he has asked for a “thorough analysis of MIT’s involvement” that will “describe the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took.”
Lawrence Lessig, Furman professor of law and leadership at Harvard Law School and director of the Safra Center for Ethics, served as Swartz’s lawyer for a time; according to Lessig’s blog, “When my obligations to Harvard created a conflict that made it impossible for me to continue as a lawyer, I continued as a friend.” In a recent post, Lessig recalls his friendship with Swartz and states:
…the question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a “felon.” For in the 18 months of negotiations, that was what he was not willing to accept, and so that was the reason he was facing a million dollar trial in April—his wealth 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.
Gordon McKay professor of computer science Harry Lewis used his own blog to comment on the Internet response to Swartz’s death, mentioning one petition to pardon him posthumously for the crime for which he was to stand trial, another to remove the U.S. attorney responsible for prosecuting his case, and a paper-posting protest on Twitter, “in honor of Swartz’s JSTOR-liberating hack.” “I leave it to others to speculate on the symbolic significance, but it’s pretty clear he wasn’t accessing anything he wasn’t already authorized to have, and he wasn’t planning to make any money by doing it,” Lewis wrote. “Put yourself in the shoes of the alleged criminals, and don’t try to build your career by showing how harsh you can be. Hounding a young person may cost a career, or a life. Gentle hands, I beg you all.”
Swartz’s family said in a statement:
Aaron’s insatiable curiosity, creativity, and brilliance; his reflexive empathy and capacity for selfless, boundless love; his refusal to accept injustice as inevitable—these gifts made the world, and our lives, far brighter. We’re grateful for our time with him, to those who loved him and stood with him, and to all of those who continue his work for a better world.