It would be outrageously presumptuous for me to suggest anything about why Hacktivist Aaron Swartz too his life, but others who knew him, including his family, have offered insight, and it would be wrong to ignore it.
His family explains the pressures that drove him to this final act:
Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. 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. The US 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.
Larry Lessig, who was involved in Swartz’s defense for a period of time, speaks to the government’s “bullying”:
But all this shows is that if the government proved its case, some punishment was appropriate. So what was that appropriate punishment? Was Aaron a terrorist? Or a cracker trying to profit from stolen goods? Or was this something completely different?Lessig goes on to make a sentencing argument, why the wrong wasn’t so wrong, the harm hardly so harmful. When Swartz’s case first became news, I wrote about it.
Early on, and to its great credit, JSTOR figured “appropriate” out: They declined to pursue their own action against Aaron, and they asked the government to drop its. MIT, to its great shame, was not as clear, and so the prosecutor had the excuse he needed to continue his war against the “criminal” who we who loved him knew as Aaron.
By no stretch of the imagination do I believe that Swartz’s attempt to download the JSTOR content was acceptable or lawful. He’s no Robin Hood, and the ideologue’s belief that digital content should be free for the taking is nothing more than religious pap, a belief that fails to bear out under rational scrutiny.
At the same time, this prosecution seems to be nothing more than a vindictive act by the government, given JSTOR’s agnostic, at worst, stance toward Swartz. They worked it out and the story should have been over. It’s just that the government can’t let it go, given that they finally have a case against a targeted individual. Vindictive prosecution, no matter what the underlying wrong, is a due process violation.
While I didn’t (and still don’t) share the Hacktivist’s creed that all information must be free, I’ve since learned a great deal more about MIT’s “cherished principles,” which both explains why Swartz’s access to a closet and ability to engage in this conduct at MIT was not only hardly as “criminal” as it might have been elsewhere, but frankly a tolerated, if not encouraged, way of life there.
As Alex Stamos, who was to be Swartz’s expert at the trial, explains:
In the spirit of the MIT ethos, the Institute runs this open, unmonitored and unrestricted network on purpose. Their head of network security admitted as much in an interview Aaron’s attorneys and I conducted in December. MIT is aware of the controls they could put in place to prevent what they consider abuse, such as downloading too many PDFs from one website or utilizing too much bandwidth, but they choose not to.
There is no doubt that this is an accurate reflection of the community ethos of the Institute. Why the office of legal counsel at MIT did not show the guts to make this plain to the government is inexplicable, and disingenuous. Did they cower in fear of the government’s bullying too? If so, then they are an embarrassment to the Institute and are unworthy of their jobs. And if not, then their failure to tell the government to get lost is inexcusable and flies in the face of the MIT ethos. Again, they are unworthy of their jobs. No matter what the excuse, the fact that MIT counsel didn’t do everything in their power to quash this prosecution from their end is a disgrace.
But there remains a side of this tragedy that the geek community misses. Government overreaching, “bullying” as Lessig calls it, didn’t start on the day Aaron Swartz was arrested. The eulogists, friends, watchers from the Hacktivist side seem to think this was an affliction that happened only to Swartz.
Hardly. Aaron Swartz was just today’s victim of government overreaching and abusive prosecution, largely undistinguishable from the multitudes who came before him. But you don’t know about them, as they weren’t 14-year-old RSS code writers. So you didn’t notice. You didn’t care. They didn’t exist to you, even as they faced 50 year sentences just like Swartz.
Not even his friends argue that what Swartz did wasn’t a technical violation of law. They did argue that the vehemence with which the government went after him, the threat of so many decades in prison, the pressure of being the target of such overwhelming power, was wrong and more than he could stand. Not merely the pressure from the government itself, but its emanations as well. Philip Greenspun tells of his talk with Swartz’s lawyers:
While a federal defense may well be worth $1.5 million, this is one of the wildest claims I’ve ever seen. Maybe 1% of defendants pay anything close to this amount, though it’s certainly to their benefit to be able to do everything possible to defend. The other 99% make do on a tenth, or a hundredth, and still fight. Bennett wonders whether Swartz’s lawyers were milking him. Greenspun continues:
I asked the lawyers “Suppose that the government’s case is completely frivolous and Swartz is guaranteed to be acquitted. What would he expect to spend in legal fees to defend the case?” They didn’t want to reveal anything particular to Aaron’s case but said “Generally the minimum cost to defend a federal criminal lawsuit is $1.5 million.”
Absolutely daunting, as it is for the tens of thousands of others who were forced to endure the unwanted attention of the government.
A daunting prospect for anyone. Apparently too daunting for a 26-year-old.
So it wasn’t on the radar of the computer geeks until one of their own was the target? They weren’t aware of how daunting it was for all the others who came before Aaron Swartz, some younger than the 26-year-old, some with children whose lives would be ruined because of a parent’s stupidity, some who, like Swartz, did wrong but certainly nothing wrong enough to justify the government laying waste to their lives? These cases, these lives, were the precursors to the harsh treatment of Aaron Swartz, and yet you didn’t know or care that any of this was happening because it didn’t touch someone you knew.
Now you know what we know. Will your anger and interest end when Aaron Swartz is buried, and you can go back to writing code and thinking cool ideas? If you want to honor his memory, perhaps you might want to put all those brilliant minds to use changing the system that drove Swartz to take his own life. It’s still here, and it’s still just as bad as it was in Swartz’s case. And it will continue to be, even as you move back to your more pleasant pursuits.
But you can no longer pretend to be surprised about what the government does to people. It happened to Aaron Swartz, and you hated it. And it will continue to happen, as it happened before Swartz was caught in its web. What now?
Update: MIT President L. Raphael Reif has issued a statement regarding the death of Aaron Swartz, that includes Computer Science Professor Hal Abelson to “lead a thorough analysis of MIT’s involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in fall 2010 up to the present. I have asked that this analysis describe the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took.”
That’s fine, though thought ahead of action, or in this case death, might have been more useful. “Better late than never” is particularly unsatisfying.
Update 2: Anonymous crashed the MIT computer network in protest of District of Massachusetts United States Attorney Carmen Ortiz’s overreaching in Aaron Swartz’s prosecution, lack of information freedom and the excessive sentences in computer crime cases.
While it’s understandable that those utterly unaware that this wasn’t the first instance of overreaching, or injustice from the myopic perspective, and that Carmen Ortiz may well have seriously overreached, but hardly more so than the government (meaning the DOJ and United States Attorneys across the country) has done in tens of thousand of other cases that didn’t involve someone well-known to the computer geek community, the sudden interest in the criminal justice system is astoundingly naive.
The “fight” isn’t about a single case, or a single criminal law, a single punishment regime or a single United States Attorney, and the fight didn’t begin yesterday and won’t finish tomorrow, after Ortiz collapses in fear of your awesomeness, and all the other prosecutors run and hide because a bunch of computer people called Ortiz mean names and Anonymous took out a network for a few hours. And then you can go back to playing on your X-box, satisfied that you’ve changed the world.