When news first spread of Aaron Swartz’s suicide, a number of early response articles focused on and lamented the 26-year-old programmer and thinker’s struggle with severe depression. A statement released by the Reddit co-founder’s family and partner on Sunday directed anger and blame elsewhere: the institutions — the U.S. government and MIT — that would see the brilliant technologist and social justice activist jailed for up t0 50 years.
“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy,” the statement read, “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.”
Over the weekend, the thin veins connecting disparate social justice activist and hacker networks have pulsed thick with anger, sadness and a shared desire to fight the conditions that drove Swartz to his death. Anonymous has already struck. The hacker collective broke into MIT’s website and replaced the homepage with a tribute, “In Memoriam, Aaron Swartz.”
The hackers left a statement decrying the lawsuit Swartz was facing for downloading millions of academic articles from MIT’s JSTOR database – for which the activist could have been jailed for decades. The statement called the Justice Department’s pursuit of Swartz “a grotesque miscarriage of justice” and “a distorted and perverse shadow of the justice that Aaron died fighting for.”
In tribute to Swartz’s fight for free data, the hackers called for renewed efforts to change “computer crime laws, and the overzealous prosecutors who use them.” The statement continued:
We call for this tragedy to be a basis for reform of copyright and intellectual property law, returning it to the proper principles of common good to the many, rather than private gain to the few.
We call for this tragedy to be a basis for greater recognition of the oppression and injustices heaped daily by certain persons and institutions of authority upon anyone who dares to stand up and be counted for their beliefs, and for greater solidarity and mutual aid in response.
We call for this tragedy to be a basis for a renewed and unwavering commitment to a free and unfettered internet, spared from censorship with equality of access and franchise for all.
Anonymous’ tribute to Swartz is one among many, with many more to come. Using the Twitter hashtag #pdftribute, academics and writers this weekend began posting their paywall protected articles for free online to honor and continue Swartz’s work. On Tuesday, Swartz’s family are holding an open funeral in Chicago to honor an “extraordinary and irreplaceable man.”
The MIT hack came hours after the university pledged an investigation into its role in events leading up to Swartz’s suicide. Anonymous — in a rare display of sympathy for its target — acknowledged in its statement to MIT that “it is a time of soul-searching for all those within this great institution.”
Based on footage captured of Swartz in an MIT computer-wiring closet, the Internet prodigy was arrested in 2011 for allegedly downloading nearly 5 million academic articles from JSTOR — the online academic publishers subscribed to at a high price by academic institutions (money that does not go to article authors, it is worth noting). Although JSTOR told federal prosecutors it had no interest in pursuing charges against Swartz, the DoJ, led by a harsh and zealous Boston prosecutor, threw everything they could at the young activist. This, despite the fact that Swartz had no intention of profiting from the heft cachet of academic work in his possession. As Glenn Greenwald noted:
This [JSTOR] 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.
And while JSTOR has recently moved to make over 1,000 of its journals free to the public, before his death Aaron was just two months away from a trial in which the prosecution was pushing to jail him for decades and fine him $1 million. Swartz’s longtime friend, legal scholar and political activist Lawrence Lessig this weekend called the prosecution a “bully”:
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.
When faced with aggressive and brutal police lines in the streets during mass Occupy mobilizations in 2011 and 2012, crowds would chant the old refrain, “Who do you protect? Who do you serve?”
Bradley Manning awaits court martial and potentially life in prison after months of unlawful pretrial detention, former CIA agent John Kiriakou blew the whistle on torture and is imprisoned, four anarchists in the Pacific Northwest have been incarcerated without charges for refusing to speak to a federal grand jury. But as Lessig notes, “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.” And Aaron, a “kid genius,” hanged himself in his New York apartment. It couldn’t be more obvious who gets protection, who gets service.
The tragic irony is that compared to many activists in his extended network, Swartz was amenable to working with government technocrats to push for reform and progress — he was a liberal, not an anarchist, as his friend Matt Stoller told readers at Naked Capitalism. Yet the same system to which Swartz showed some deference and hope for reform repaid him with an unrelenting witch hunt and the threat of a life behind bars.