On Friday, January 11th, 2013, the girlfriend of 26-year old Aaron Swartz discovered that he had hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment. The Internet and social media sphere was quickly flooded with expressions of grief and outrage.
Who Was Aaron Swartz?Aaron Swartz was an amazing visionary and activist who created tools and movements to empower, inform, and mobilize people. He was involved in developing and contributing to many of the tools upon which information sharing on the Internet are based, including Really Simple Syndication (RSS), the XML content type for the Resource Description Framework (RDF) of the W3C, and Web.py (a lightweight Web framework developed in Python).
He built Infogami (a Wiki application framework built on Web.py), which he used to launch a business that he merged with Reddit, which was, in turn, sold to Conde Nast. He used that same framework to build the architecture for the Open Library, a project to create “one Web page for every book ever published,” which now houses 20 million book records and 1 million e-books. He was one of the major creators of and contributors to Archive.org. He collaborated with his mentor, Lawrence Lessig, in the creation of the framework for Creative Commons’ licensing.
In an incredibly moving interview with Amy Goodwin on Democracy Now, Larry Lessig summed up a few of Aaron’s contributions this way:
"In all of these areas what he was doing was advancing ideals. He was an idealist who believed we had to live up to something better and he was an incredible soul who inspired millions who now weep, as we’ve seen across the Internet, in outrage and devastation that he would have been driven to the cliff that he stepped over.”
~ Lawrence Lessig, Democracy Now Interview
What Happened? He Was the Victim of Government and Corporate Bullying
The people who knew Aaron well are convinced that he was pushed into suicide by bullying. He was the target of a lawsuit in which he was to be prosecuted as a felon for downloading scholarly articles from a repository, called JSTOR, that collects fees from institutions like universities and pays those fees to journal publishers, rather than to the authors of the articles themselves.
My guess is that Aaron felt that since most of the authors and their institutions had paid for the privilege of being peer-reviewed and published in these journals over the years, they were entitled to share their work freely with people all over the world.
Whatever his motivation was, both the U.S. government and MIT (the institution whose servers Aaron used to download), overreacted. JSTOR quickly said that it was NOT going to enter into either a criminal or civil suit against Aaron. But the Massachusetts’ Federal Attorney, Carmen Ortiz, and the powers that be at MIT, decided to make an example out of Aaron.
Larry Lessig served for a brief period as Aaron’s lawyer, but he had to step away from the case because he works for Harvard and, since the suit that was being brought involved MIT, it was deemed to be a conflict of interest. But this is how Larry described the intent of the suit in his interview with Amy Goodwin:
“Remember that this was the period when Bradley Manning and Wikileaks was going on. The federal government thought it was really important to make an example. So they brought this incredibly ridiculous prosecution that had more than a dozen counts claiming felony violations against Aaron, threatening scores of years in prison.
"It wasn’t the theoretical claims, it was the practical burden that for the past two years, his wealth was bled dry, as he had to negotiate to try to finally settle this matter, because the government was not going to stop before he admitted that he was a felon. In the world where the architects of the financial crisis dine regularly at the white house, it’s ridiculous to think Aaron Swartz was a felon.”
Lessig points out, both in this interview and in his blog post entitled, Prosecutor as Bully, that it’s the proportionality of the government’s response that is wrong. Aaron may have done something wrong—downloaded academic journal articles (although he had yet to post them anywhere, and he was legally entitled to read them!); but he was prosecuted and persecuted as if he were a 9/11 terrorist and hounded to agree that he was a felon, many times over. It was the ridiculous and outrageous cost, both monetary and psychic, of having to defend himself against a government and an academic bureaucracy that was driven by big business—the already at risk academic journal publishing business—that drove Aaron to make a statement by killing himself.
Now, the charges have been dropped. And MIT is launching its own internal investigation. We hope that the U.S. Attorney General will also question and examine the overreaction of its US Attorney—Carmen Ortiz.
In many ways, the most moving part of Amy’s interview with Larry Lessig is the part where Larry reveals that Aaron’s desire for the allegedly stolen articles had been fulfilled four days before his death, but he probably never knew:
“I received an email from the President of JSTOR four days before Aaron died, announcing/celebrating that JSTOR was going to release all of these journal articles to anybody around the world who wanted access. That’s exactly what Aaron was fighting for. I didn’t have time to send it to Aaron. I was traveling. But I looked forward to seeing him again, and celebrating that this is what happened. “All of us think that there are a thousand things that we could have done. A thousand things we could have done and we have to do because Aaron Swartz is now an icon, an idealist. He’s what we will be fighting for for the rest of our lives.”
Don’t Forget Aaron Swartz, the Political and Social Change Agent!
Aaron also led a number of very successful grass roots political movements to reform healthcare, our financial system, and, of course, to protect freedom of speech and access to information. He successfully organized the grass roots campaign that defeated a House bill called SOPA and a Senate bill called PIPA. In my opinion, it’s probably Aaron’s highly successful political activism which made him the target for persecution and kept the government and corporate heat on during the two years in which he was trying to negotiate a settlement to the lawsuit. One of the people who speaks most eloquently about Aaron’s work in and around politics is Matt Stoller:
“Most people have focused on Aaron’s work as an advocate for more open information systems, because that’s what the Feds went after him for, and because he’s well-understood as a technologist who founded Reddit and invented RSS. But I knew a different side of him. I knew Aaron as a political activist interested in health care, financial corruption, and the drug war (we were working on a project on that just before he died)….”
“We were engaged in fights around the health care bill that eventually became Obamacare, as well as a much narrower but significant fight on auditing the Federal Reserve that eventually became a provision in Dodd-Frank."
"Aaron learned about Congress by just spending time there, which seems like an obvious thing to do. Many activists prefer to keep their distance from policymakers, because they are afraid of the complexity of the system and believe that it is inherently corrupting. Aaron, as with much of his endeavors, simply let his curiosity, which he saw as synonymous with brilliance, drive him…”
"Aaron came into our office to intern for a few weeks to learn about Congress and how bills were put together. He worked with me on organizing the campaign within the Financial Services Committee to pass the amendment sponsored by Ron Paul and Alan Grayson on transparency at the Fed."
"He helped with the website NamesOfTheDead.com, a site dedicated to publicizing the 44,000 Americans that die every year because they don’t have health insurance."
“Aaron approached politics like he approached technology. His method was as follows - (1) Learn (2) Try (3) Gab (4) Build. He was methodical about his work, and his approach to life …. Aaron liked to “lean in” to difficult problems, work at them until he could break them down and solve them. He had no illusions about politics, which is why he eventually became so good at it. He didn’t disdain the political process the way so many choose to, but he also didn’t engage in flowery lazy thoughts about the glory of checks and balances. He broke politics down and systematically attempted to understand the system. Aaron learned, tried, gabbed, and then built.”
Please take a look at the two links above—Aaron Swartz’s advice is profound in both of these posts. And, finally, to hear Aaron himself describe some of what he was fighting for, watch this moving speech he gave in May, 2012.