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Aaron Swartz suicide: who's to blame, what happens now

The circumstances of the tragic death of Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz

On January 11 2013 programmer and internet freedom activist Aaron Swartz was found dead in his New York apartment having taken his own life. He was 26 years old. The tragic news shocked the technology community and resulted in emotional outpourings of sorrow and anger from many of his friends and colleagues. Perhaps the most profound appeared on Twitter from Sir Tim Berners-Lee who wrote 'Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.' See also: Facing federal charges, Internet innovator and activist Aaron Swartz commits suicide.

Aaron was known to suffer from depression and his suicide appears to be a terrible consequence of this illness, but there are many - including his family - who feel that some blame for his sad demise may lie with another entity, that of the US Attorney's office.

At the time of his death Aaron was facing charges for multiple felonies related to his downloading of academic papers from JSTOR, a digital repository of journals and articles, via a laptop hidden in a cupboard on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) campus. Swartz's supporters have suggested that the case against him was unnecessarily harsh, and was possibly linked to his public position of campaigner for copyright reforms and internet freedom.

Whatever the motivations behind the case the result was that a twenty six year old man with no previous convictions and an outstanding reputation in the academic community could have believed he was facing many years in prison and fines of up to a million dollars. See also: MIT to probe its role in Aaron Swartz's suicide.

Aaron Swartz: family statement

The US attorney's office insists that Swartz would never have served more than six months in a low-security jail, but in an official statement released in the aftermath of Swartz's loss his family stated '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 US 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.'

Swartz had been a passionate innovator in the field of sharing information online. He was a central part of the team that wrote the RSS code that now enables news feeds, blogs, and podcasts to be delivered automatically. He was a pivotal figure in the writing of the Creative Commons license which allows creators to distribute and have others  redistribute their works freely while still maintaining an agreed level of ownership, he also worked on the Internet Archive whose goal it is to offer 'universal access to knowledge' for everyone, and was a co-founder of user generated news site Reddit.  

He came to public prominence as an outspoken opponent to potentially restrictive legislation, such as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which sought to impose strict copyright controls on the internet. Swartz said of the act 'This bill would be a huge, potentially permanent, loss. If we lost the ability to communicate with each other over the internet it would be a change to the Bill of Rights, the freedoms guaranteed in our constitution. The freedoms our country had been built on would be suddenly deleted.'

Along with other activists Swartz formed the advocacy group Demand Progress which petitioned congress and raised public awareness of the potential dangers they saw with SOPA. Eventually, with the help of significant companies such as Google and Wikipedia, the act was defeated but Swartz and his collaborators had made some powerful enemies.

Aaron Swartz vs US Justice Dept

The JSTOR incident wasn't the first time that Swartz had come into contact with the US Government's Justice Department. In 2008 the PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) database, which held all the United States Federal Court documents and charged eight cents per page to access them, was trialled as a free service in a small number of libraries across the US. Carl Malamud, head of the non profit group Public.resource.org urged activists to download as many of the records as possible in an attempt to circumvent the fee-based system and instead make the records (which were not under copyright) publically available for free. Swartz responded to the appeal and wrote a small Perl script which he loaded onto a computer in one of the libraries. See also: Swartz suicide shines light on federal anti-hacking law.

This managed to obtain nearly 20 percent of the total records available (approx twenty million pages) before the government shut the trial down. Aaron subsequently found himself under investigation by the FBI, but after a couple of months the case against him was dropped due to the fact that he hadn't broken any laws.

JSTOR though, was more complicated. Swartz was a research fellow at Harvard, which gave him a JSTOR account, and as an academic he was also allowed on to the MIT campus as a visitor, with entitled access to the JSTOR servers.

His decision to write a similar program to the one he used on PACER, and to hide a laptop on campus which downloaded a considerable amount of data, was a misjudged one. Swartz was arrested and charged with numerous felonies, which if convicted would have had drastic implications on his future. The basis for the seriousness of the charges stems from current US laws which are, as is often the case around the world at the moment, struggling to pace with changes in technology.

Under current legislation you can be charged with a felony if you are deemed to have broken the terms and services agreement of any website or online service that you use. Obviously this leaves open a certain amount of interpretation, otherwise anyone who ever used a false name on their Facebook account would be spending a few years in jail, but this is precisely why Swartz's friends and supporters feel there was an injustice acted out by the prosecutors. See also: Lessig, Demand Progress support investigation of Swartz prosecutor.

JSTOR decided not to press charges against Swartz, although they did comment that his behaviour had been a 'significant misuse' of their service. It's notable that a couple of days before Swartz's suicide JSTOR actually made their records available to anyone if they signed up for a free account. The US Attorney's Office did pursue Swartz, with lead prosecutor Carmen Ortiz famously stating that 'Stealing is stealing', but in a statement released after Swartz's death Ortiz maintained that 'At no time did this office ever seek – or ever tell Mr  Swartz's attorneys that it intended to seek – maximum penalties under the law.' Instead she asserted that the penalty should have been 'a sentence that we would recommend to the judge of six months in a low security setting'. See also: Petition seeks removal of Swartz prosecutor Ortiz and Carmen Ortiz defends her office's prosecution of Aaron Swartz.

Aaron Swartz's death, and the circumstances surrounding it, have now triggered investigations at MIT, online petitions to have Ortiz removed from office, and moves by two members of Congress for the current legislation to be changed - under the working title of 'Aaron's Law'. For a young man who spent the majority of his life fighting for freedom of expression and information online it seems that even in his passing he could leave a significant impact for future generations. See also: Congresswoman proposes amendment to computer fraud law honoring Aaron Swartz.

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