Yesterday, we lost one of the smartest, most politically aware, and most dedicated advocates for freedom we have had so far in the Internet age; we also lost a truly engaged, honest, and fundamentally good-hearted young person, who was unfairly hounded by U.S. federal prosecutors for a non-crime (in fact, an act intended as a service) that they have misrepresented throughout their prosecution.
Aaron Swartz took his own life yesterday, at the age of 26. He was facing multiple felony charges; if convicted he could have gone to jail for thirty-five years, and owed over a million dollars in fines. His “crime” was that he downloaded too many articles from JSTOR, an online service providing access to academic articles. He downloaded more articles than JSTOR’s terms of service allowed, therefore he was in violation of their terms of service, therefore (according to the prosecution’s interpretation) he violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. JSTOR themselves were not interested in pressing charges — this was federal prosecutors deciding to make an example. Now they have unintentionally succeeded, tragically and in a way that I hope, for the sake of their own souls, they never anticipated. Stubbornly, and characteristically, Aaron was unwilling to take a plea deal and be labeled a “felon” when he had done nothing wrong; he insisted on pleading not guilty. At this point, with JSTOR not cooperating, the defendant clearly feeling sincerely innocent, and a great many people already publicly defending Aaron, the prosecution team should have taken a step back and asked themselves “Why do we need a kid to go to jail for most of the rest of his life for something that’s not even wrong enough for the supposed victim to want to press charges? What good would it serve?” Instead, they utterly failed to understand Aaron’s well-articulated position on freedom of information, failed to see that making copies of articles from an academic service is not a property rights issue nor should even be a criminal matter, failed to consider that sending a young man to jail until he’s past sixty just to make an example — a pointless example, at that — would be profoundly immoral.
There are many remembrances already on the Internet, but two in particular stand out: Rick Perlstein’s and Lawrence Lessig’s. Both are personal remembrances, but both make the point (Rick even more directly in a separate Facebook post) that it would be a mistake to reflexively pathologize this and blame it simply on Aaron’s occasional depression. In Rick’s words, from a Facebook conversation: “I would downplay the depression angle. The big piece he wrote about his depression came when he was 17. When I talked to him about my own depression a year ago, he really didn’t respond as a fellow-traveler. I can’t say precisely, but I don’t think it was a huge part of his life. Having his soul gnarled down to a nub by a Javert had much more to do with it, I think.” You’d be depressed too if the might of the U.S. federal judicial system seemed dedicated to sending you to jail for most of your life over an essentially altruistic act that harmed no one. I can’t read Aaron’s mind and don’t know what he was thinking, but the relentlessness of that system bearing down on him was there, every day, with no sign of respite. Whether one is prone to depression or not, that’s a hard, hard road. And your friends and allies may defend you till they’re blue in the face, but they’re not going to be there in the jail cell with you.
Lessig was a close friend of and a defender of Aaron, and his post shows his justified anger now. With both respect and sympathy, I still think it’s important to disagree with one small portion of what he said: “…if what the government alleged was true … then what he did was wrong. And if not legally wrong, then at least morally wrong. The causes that Aaron fought for are my causes too. But as much as I respect those who disagree with me about this, these means are not mine.”
As we wrote here when he was charged, Aaron didn’t do anything wrong. He made copies of articles that were not confidential, that are now publicly accessible anyway, and all indications are that he was doing so for altruistic purposes. He did engage in some subterfuge, to work around barriers to access, but there’s a good argument to be made (no doubt the courts would not have permitted him to make it) that this was justified, or at least defensible. Lessig has this one thing precisely backwards: what Aaron did was not morally wrong at all; it may have been legally wrong, though even that’s not clear. (Peter Sunde’s touching post about Aaron, which I only saw after writing the rest of this, makes the same point.) At least some of the federal charges rely on an overly broad interpretation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act that essentially outsources key determinations to private web site operators’ Terms of Service agreements, thus criminalizing matters that should be purely in the domain of civil law. Again, note that JSTOR refused to press civil charges. If you want to understand in more technical detail what Aaron did and the context in which he did it, read Alex Stamos’ excellent post: The Truth About Aaron Swartz’s “Crime”. And for a broader understanding of Aaron’s work, you really should read Tim Carmody’s amazing piece “Memory to myth: tracing Aaron Swartz through the 21st century”.
No one’s life should be reduced to a symbol for a cause. Aaron was a truly engaging person, loved by many, and as serious as one could be about living life with a purpose. We first met during a trip to Europe in the winter of 2006-2007, where we ran into each other in the same cities (Berlin, Stockholm) — not as much of a coincidence as it sounds, as we were there for some of the same reasons: to meet with some free culture activists in Europe, as well as just have a good time on the road, and he was traveling with a group of friends some of whom I knew as well. One night we were all staying in the same room (in the apartment of a generous fellow traveler, in the other sense of the word “traveler”) talking, and I happened to catch a glimpse of what Aaron had packed for his trip to Europe. He was 19 or at most 20 at the time. His bag must have been three-quarters full of books — serious, hardcover books on history, politics, science, economics, and many other topics. I remarked on this, and to hear him explain it you would think it was the most natural thing in the world to pack only a few changes of clothes but enough reading material to run several simultaneous in-depth academic seminars. Subsequent conversations, then and later back in the U.S., made it clear that this was no affectation: he had brought the books because this was a chance to read, and he loved learning. He was really reading them, too, and was happy to talk about them. I didn’t give him enough credit in the first couple of conversations; his well-deserved intellectual reputation preceded him, but I didn’t understand how much he could already know and think at 19. I soon corrected that mistake. His observations could be sharp and probing, but what stood out for me was his conversational maturity. The stereotype of the young hotshot is that he has to win every argument — Aaron didn’t, and in fact he was an excellent, attentive listener as well as having interesting things to say and, yes, brilliantly holding the floor when it was appropriate to do so. As much as any of his many accomplishments, or his substantial intellectual gifts, it was this self-imposed maturity that I found most impressive. He already knew what he believed in, and that he had the ability to get things done for the causes he made his own. What probably took real work was making himself able to appreciate and learn from and collaborate with those less talented or less knowledgeable than himself — which is just about all of us — and he succeeded. He did it. He became (or perhaps always was, and just had to grow into it) a mensch, someone any of his friends, colleagues, and fellow travelers were glad to see and talk with at any time. And now he’s gone. He will not be forgotten.
Update: many moving tributes are now being collected at rememberaaronsw.com, and the Internet Archive has started the Aaron Swartz Collection to form a permanent online digital archive of Aaron’s life and work; if you have emails, photos, video, or audio of Aaron, please contribute it there.