The legacy of Aaron Swartz
In early January of this year, while facing numerous federal piracy charges, Internet activist Aaron Swartz took his own life. He was 26. This event strengthened the newfound debate on transparency and freedom of information sparked by Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. In an instant, Swartz burst into the public consciousness and ignited a debate over not just information, but also legality and ethics. Since then, he has become something of an Internet martyr — an exemplar of both the savvy, mischievous Internet activist and the bold fighter for the free flow of information.
But Swartz is also the modern descendent of a long lineage of cyber rebels. In the late seventies, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of Apple constructed and sold “blue box” telephone devices. These gadgets allowed Jobs and Wozniak to make long-distance calls for free. They decided to cash out of their illegal business plan with nearly $6,000. Now imagine if Jobs and Wozniak had been sentenced to 35 years in prison for their scheme. Unthinkable? This dilemma lies at the heart of the Aaron Swartz case. It is the story of a thorny ordeal where business, law, civil liberty and academia all intersect. The Swartz case also forces us to consider the value we place on information and human life.
Swartz was born in Chicago, Ill. on Nov. 8, 1986. He was something of a child prodigy, developing a deep understanding of computer programming at an early age and displaying a unique talent for his craft. At age 14 he co-authored the RSS 1.0 system, which allows for the speedy uploading and distribution of blogs, videos and other media. Swartz was instrumental in the development of the social news website Reddit, and he founded the political action group Demand Progress. Both websites were critical in the defeat of the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA. Swartz opposed SOPA on the grounds that it impeded freedom of information.
But his campaign for online justice would soon come to a halt. Between 2010 and 2011, Swartz downloaded more than four million academic journal articles from JSTOR, a digital academic archive, with intent to distribute them to the public. JSTOR cannot be accessed without an account, so Swartz used the guest account on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology open campus computer network. He plugged his computer into the MIT system through a tiny unlocked wiring closet and ran a script that allowed him to download massive amounts of material at a high rate. Swartz believed that the information was created in the public domain and should be returned to that domain.
Swartz was arrested on the campus of Harvard University on Jan. 6, 2011. He was charged with violation of a law called the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which dates back to the mid 1980s. Many critics cite the broad scope and language of the act in claiming that it allowed for disproportionate charges to be leveled against Swartz. Those charges were 2 counts of wire fraud and 11 counts of fraud and invasion, all of which were justified under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. He faced 35 years in prison followed by 3 years of supervised release, and fines of up to $1 million.
Despite the violation of their terms and conditions, JSTOR did not seek to press charges against Swartz. MIT also sought to wash its hands of the ordeal, and similarly refused to press charges. Still, Swartz’s actions were deemed a federal offense and the prosecution pressed on. A plea deal was initially offered involving reduced prison time. Swartz’s attorneys also negotiated a deal that involved Swartz serving no prison time. JSTOR put their seal of approval on the bargain, but the MIT administration would not approve.
That all changed in an instant. On Jan. 11, 2013, Swartz was found dead in his apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. He had committed suicide by hanging himself. No suicide note was found. Many of Swartz’s contemporaries blamed his death on a bureaucratic witch-hunt. Others thought that Swartz was betrayed by MIT.
In a statement delivered at the funeral, Swartz’s father said, “[Aaron] was killed by the government, and MIT betrayed all of its basic principles.” After Aaron’s death, the trial was dropped. On its own website JSTOR stated, “The case is one that we ourselves had regretted being drawn into from the outset… Aaron returned the data he had in his possession and JSTOR settled any civil claims we might have had against him in June 2011.”
It seemed JSTOR wanted nothing to do with the case in the first place. In the days before Swartz’s death, JSTOR themselves released 4.5 million articles to the public. It was clear that Swartz’s case represented more than just a private property offense. Rather, it became a highly contentious and politically charged legal debacle.
MIT president Rafael Reif, who was criticized for his handling of the case, said, “I want to express very clearly that I and all of us at MIT are extremely saddened by the death of this promising young man who touched the lives of so many. It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy.”
Daniel Scopelliti is a sophomore philosophy and religion major. Email him at dscopel1[at]ithaca.edu.