Aaron Swartz was easy to pick out of a crowd. I met him only once, at a 2010 gathering of legal academics organized by Larry Lessig at Harvard. In a room full of suits Aaron wore a Google App Engine T-Shirt.
Unfortunately, Aaron’s penchant for defying social convention may have been his undoing. He was arrested in 2011 for scraping articles from the academic archive JSTOR. Facing hacking charges that could put him in prison for decades, Aaron took his own life on Friday.
Aaron accomplished more in his 26 years than most of us will accomplish in our lifetimes. At the age of 14, Aaron helped develop the RSS standard. He was an early member of the team that created Reddit, which was sold to Condé Nast (Wired.co.uk’s parent company) before Aaron turned 20. Now independently wealthy, Aaron threw himself into political activism.
Aaron had long been acquainted with legal scholar and Creative Commons founder Larry Lessig. When Lessig shifted his focus from copyright reform to institutional corruption, Aaron became an enthusiastic supporter of Lessig’s new cause. He joined the Safra Centre for Ethics, which Lessig directed, as a fellow.
In late 2010, Aaron became incensed about a copyright proposal that would eventually become the Stop Online Piracy Act. He founded a group called Demand Progress, which became a key rallying point in the fight against SOPA. He and the team he assembled spent 2011 raising awareness about the problems with the legislation, building momentum for the 18 January, 2012 protest that decisively killed it.
Guerilla open access
Aaron was passionate about public access to information and offended by public information being locked behind paywalls. One paywall that particularly irked Aaron was on PACER, the website the United States judiciary uses to distribute public court records. The courts charged seven US cents (eventually raised to ten) per page to access legal briefs, judicial opinions, scheduling orders, and other documents essential to understanding the judicial process.
So when the courts started a pilot program to allow free access to PACER from 17 libraries around the country, Aaron sprung into action. He visited one of the libraries and reverse-engineered the authentication process the library’s computers used to bypass the paywall. Then he spun up some cloud servers and, using credentials purloined from one of the libraries, began scraping documents from PACER. He got more than two million documents before the courts noticed what was happening and shut the pilot program down. When I was in grad school at Princeton, some colleagues and I used the documents Aaron obtained as the foundation of RECAP, a Firefox extension to liberate court documents and store them in a public archive.
Aaron was also outraged about the high prices charged for access to scholarly publications. In a 2008 manifesto, he denounced the legacy system of academic publishing in which scholarly knowledge is locked up behind paywalls. “We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access,” he wrote.
In the fall of 2010, Swartz engaged in a bit of Guerilla Open Access himself, logging onto MIT’s network to scrape millions of academic papers from the JSTOR database. When MIT administrators booted his laptop off the Wi-Fi network, he entered an MIT network closet and plugged his laptop directly into the campus network.
The stunt got the attention of federal prosecutors, who arrested him and charged him with multiple counts of computer hacking, wire fraud, and other crimes. The feds ratcheted up the charges further in September. If convicted on all charges he could have spent more than 50 years in prison.
We don’t know the details of Aaron’s death or why he might have taken his own life. In a comment onhacker news, Aaron’s mother wrote, “thank you all for your kind words and thoughts. Aaron has been depressed about his case/upcoming trial, but we had no idea what he was going through was this painful.”
It’s hard to imagine his looming prosecution wasn’t a factor. In an anguished Saturday blog post, Lessig describes Aaron’s predicament. He was facing a million-dollar trial in April, “his wealth bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge.”
Whether or not it contributed to his suicide, the federal government’s prosecution of Swartz was a grotesque miscarriage of justice. Aaron shouldn’t have plugged his laptop into MIT’s network without permission, but that’s not the sort of crime that deserves a multi-year, to say nothing of multi-decade, prison sentence. We should pay tribute to Aaron’s memory by reforming the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act to prevent such disproportionate prosecutions from happening in the future.
Farewell to Aaron Swartz, an Extraordinary Hacker and Activist
Yesterday Aaron Swartz, a close friend and collaborator of ours, committed suicide. This is a tragic end to a brief and extraordinary life.
Aaron did more than almost anyone to make the Internet a thriving ecosystem for open knowledge, and to keep it that way. His contributions were numerous, and some of them were indispensable. When we asked him in late 2010 for help in stopping COICA, the predecessor to the SOPA and PIPA Internet blacklist bills, he founded an organization called Demand Progress, which mobilized over a million online activists and proved to be an invaluable ally in winning that campaign.
Other projects Aaron worked on included the RSS specifications, web.py, tor2web, the Open Library, and the Chrome port of HTTPS Everywhere. Aaron helped launch the Creative Commons. He was a former co-founder at Reddit, and a member of the team that made the site successful. His blog was often a delight.
Aaron’s eloquent brilliance was mixed with a complicated introversion. He communicated on his own schedule and needed a lot of space to himself, which frustrated some of his collaborators. He was fascinated by the social world around him, but often found it torturous to deal with.
For a long time, Aaron was more comfortable reading books than talking to humans (he once told me something like, “even talking to very smart people is hard, but if I just sit down and read their books, I get their most considered and insightful thoughts condensed in a beautiful and efficient form. I can learn from books faster than I can from talking to the authors.”). His passion for the written word, for open knowledge, and his flair for self-promotion, sometimes produced spectacular results, even before the events that proved to be his undoing.
In 2011, Aaron used the MIT campus network to download millions of journal articles from the JSTOR database, allegedly changing his laptop’s IP and MAC addresses when necessary to get around blocks put in place by JSTOR and MIT and sneaking into a closet to get a faster connection to the MIT network. For this purported crime, Aaron was facing criminal charges with penalties up to thirty-five years in prison, most seriously for “unauthorized access” to computers under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
If we believe the prosecutor’s allegations against him, Aaron had hoped to liberate the millions of scientific and scholarly articles he had downloaded from JSTOR, releasing them so that anyone could read them, or analyze them as a single giant dataset, something Aaron had done before. While his methods were provocative, the goal that Aaron died fighting for — freeing the publicly-funded scientific literature from a publishing system that makes it inaccessible to most of those who paid for it — is one that we should all support.
Moreover, the situation Aaron found himself in highlights the injustice of U.S. computer crime laws, and particularly their punishment regimes. Aaron’s act was undoubtedly political activism, and taking such an act in the physical world would, at most, have a meant he faced light penalties akin to trespassing as part of a political protest. Because he used a computer, he instead faced long-term incarceration. This is a disparity that EFF has fought against for years. Yesterday, it had tragic consequences. Lawrence Lessig has called for this tragedy to be a basis for reform of computer crime laws, and the overzealous prosecutors who use them. We agree.
Aaron, we will sorely miss your friendship, and your help in building a better world. May you read in peace.
Aaron Swartz, hero of the open world, dies
Aaron Swartz, champion of the open world, committed suicide yesterday.
Working at the Internet Archive, Aaron was the architect and first coder of the OpenLibrary.org a site to open the world of books to the Internet generation. As a user of the site, he helped put public domain books on the site that had been locked up. Public access to the Public Domain, while seems obvious is not the position of many institutions, and this caused friction for Aaron.
As a volunteer, he helped make the RECAP system to offer free public access to public domain government court documents. He took the bold step of seeding this system by going to a public library to download the public domain and then uploaded the documents to the Internet Archive– this got him in trouble with the FBI. Now many millions of public domain documents have been used by over six million people for free, including researchers that could never have afforded the high fees to gain access.
If there is a sin in the open world it is locking up the public domain. Aaron took selfless action.
When he was downloading a large number of old journal articles, he was arrested at MIT. I was shocked by this. When I was at MIT, if someone went to hack the system, say by downloading databases to play with them, might be called a hero, get a degree, and start a company– but they called the cops on him. Cops. MIT used to protect us when we transgressed the traditional. Despite many of us supporting the lawyers for Aaron, he was still hounded by prosecutors. (I hope JSTOR.org and MIT will act differently in the future.)
Aaron was steadfast in his dedication to building a better and open world. Selfless. Willing to cause change.
He is among the best spirits of the Internet generation. I am crushed by his loss, but will continue to be enlightened by his work and dedication.
To mourn, I just watched this video with my son. May I suggest you seek out your children and do the same.
May a hero and founder of our open world rest in peace.
Founder, Digital Librarian of the Internet Archive