Aaron Swartz was driven to take his own life on Friday morning following highly vicious and villainous prosecution by MIT and the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s Office. Aaron’s crime: writing and executing a program to download publicly-funded academic articles on MIT’s public network with the intent of making them freely available online. Aaron didn’t hack into anything — he simply connected to a guest network that provided free access to academic articles, and he began downloading. Aaron’s actions were akin to “allegedly checking out too many books from the library,” as said by David Segal, the Executive Director of Demand Progress, the advocacy organization Aaron founded in 2010.
According to FBI Uniform Crime Reports, in 2011 there were 63 murders, over 1,900 violent robberies, and over 19,000 incidents of property crimes in Boston alone. On the MIT campus, six people were forcibly raped that same year. There’s real crime in Boston with real victims — but instead of going after them, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz decided to ‘throw the book’ at Aaron Swartz. Aaron’s actions didn’t create any victims — in fact, JSTOR (the host of the academic articles) didn’t even want Aaron to be prosecuted. Let this phrase used by Ortiz resonate in your mind for a few moments: “theft of academic articles with intent to distribute.” Intent to distribute, no longer a charge only levied upon drug dealers.
As if the charges against Aaron hadn’t reached chimerical levels, Ortiz decided to amend the charges in a superseding indictment, which was filed in September 2012. Aaron was facing a $4 million fine and up to 50 years in prison for downloading academic articles. When Aaron was arrested on July 19, 2011, he was forced to execute a $100,000 bond, give fingerprints and DNA, setup weekly in-person reports with a pretrial services officer, surrender his passport, and be subjected to travel restrictions. The charges against Aaron and his legal defense was draining every emotional and financial resource that Aaron had.
Aaron led a life full of integrity, always doing the right thing on important issues. He’s touched your life, and you may not even know it. He co-authored the RSS specification when he was 14 years old, which is a blog syndication method used by news readers, apps and podcast players. The following year, he launched Creative Commons — the intellectual property framework that has allowed many to share their work online with others. He was in notorious Silicon Valley startup incubator Y Combinator’s first class, and his company was acquired by reddit and he became part of the founding team. Aaron wrote many programs, scripts, and apps, including Python-based web framework web.py, a markdown-to-HTML generator, and more.
Aaron was perhaps best known for his activism around open data and an open internet. He fought hard against the SOPA and PIPA legislation, which would have effectively put ownership of the internet in the hands of a few corporations — his venue for doing so was Demand Progress, an political action committee that made all the difference last year in victorious wins for an open internet.
Aaron and I had crossed paths a few times — many years ago in his work around Creative Commons, again in 2008 in his work around open data, again in 2011 in his Python programming work, and finally throughout 2012 in his defense of an open internet. He and I were born within months of each other, and I’m in awe as to all of his accomplishments for his age. One could have made the same statement a decade prior. Aaron was a genius, and his death is a tragedy and a loss for intellectualism, freedom, and innovation online.
It’s nearly impossible to stop my sadness from turning into anger. There’s something egregiously wrong with computer crime and intellectual property laws in the United States. Aaron was the perfect image of American values: thinking outside the box, fearless innovation, standing up for the right thing, and advocating for a better future with gravatas and grace. The vicious prosecution of Aaron Swartz isn’t representative of what America ought to be.
It’s maniacal that technology and the internet is legislated by senators and representatives who don’t know how to check their e-mail. Aaron’s fight stretched way beyond open data. It’s a fight for community control of the internet. It’s a fight for campaign finance reform, a cure for corrupt influences in politics, and a fix for legislative missteps.
Had Aaron been allowed a day longer, could the Internet at large have been convinced to care about his prosecution? Had Aaron been allowed a week longer, could a formidable defense began to amount in his legal matters? Had Aaron been allowed a year longer, what innovations would Aaron have created to better society?
Nothing will bring Aaron back, and nobody and nothing can replace Aaron’s place in our technology ecosystem. But we can honor Aaron’s legacy and further his work by spawning more leaders in this movement. It’s time to demand progress, so to speak. It’s time to shift our academic priorities to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). It’s time to fund education that isn’t meaningless drivel. It’s time to start giving a damn about the laws that impact our everyday lives. It’s time to stop thinking that advocacy is only for nerds. It’s time to engage your friends and family in meaningful discussions about technology policy.
We lost Aaron way too soon. Let his passing serve as a wakeup call to stand up for what matters.
You can kill the protester
You can’t kill the protest
You can murder the rebel
You can’t murder the rebellion