Aaron Swartz’s suicide Friday has moved his ex-lover, friends and Internet thinkers to open up about the activist’s life, both public and personal. Swartz was facing serious charges from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massaschusetts and the consensus among the people close to him is that his depression, along with a possible 30-year prison sentence, contributed to his death.
Swartz was found hanged in his Brooklyn home Friday.
Lawyers supporting Swartz say his alleged crime didn’t warrant such prosecution.
Prosecutors had already indicted Swartz for allegedly downloading 5 million academic articles from primary source database JSTOR and planning to distribute them for free online. Swartz had access to the vast library because he was on the faculty at Harvard, but was downloading the stockpile of information from MIT’s on-campus network, leading to JSTOR temporarily revoking the school’s access. It was restored just a few days later.
JSTOR declined to pursue the matter any further once Swartz had turned over his hard drive to the authorities, but MIT was less clear with its intentions. U.S. Attorneys Carmen Ortiz and Steve Heymann in Boston pressed the matter, with Ortiz – now infamously – saying in 2009: “Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.”
Lawrence Lessig, a lawyer, Harvard professor, leading cyberlibertarian and longtime friend and confidant of Swartz, wrote a passionate blog entry about his friend's death Saturday. He attacked the justice system’s case as little more than a full-scale bullying effort that tormented a talented young man into paranoia.
“Here is where we need a better sense of justice, and shame. For the outrageousness in this story is not just Aaron. It is also the absurdity of the prosecutor’s behavior,” Lessig wrote. “From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. The ‘property’ Aaron had ‘stolen,’ we were told, was worth ‘millions of dollars’ — with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime.
“But anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar. It was clear what this was not, yet our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed.”
The same sentiment was echoed throughout the Internet. JSTOR published a sympathetic statement and offered condolences to Swartz’s loved ones, admitting they regretted being involved in the case to begin with. Friends of Swartz implied the Department of Justice had blood on its hands, citing the date of his suicide – which came two years to the day after his initial arrest – as proof.
Alex Stamos, who did not know Swartz personally, offered a breakdown of the case prosecutors were preparing against Swartz. Basically, Stamos wrote, Swartz figured out a way to download millions of PDFs through a loophole that was similar to clicking “Save As.”
“In short, Aaron Swartz was not the super hacker breathlessly described in the government’s indictment and forensic reports, and his actions did not pose a real danger to JSTOR, MIT or the public. He was an intelligent young man who found a loophole that would allow him to download a lot of documents quickly. This loophole was created intentionally by MIT and JSTOR, and was codified contractually in the piles of paperwork turned over during discovery,” Stamos wrote.
“If I had taken the stand as planned and had been asked by the prosecutor whether Aaron’s actions were ‘wrong,’ I would probably have replied that what Aaron did would better be described as ‘inconsiderate.’ In the same way it is inconsiderate to write a check at the supermarket while a dozen people queue up behind you or to check out every book at the library needed for a History 101 paper,” Lessig continued. “It is inconsiderate to download lots of files on shared wifi or to spider Wikipedia too quickly, but none of these actions should lead to a young person being hounded for years and haunted by the possibility of a 35-year sentence.”
Not lost in the conversation has been how loved as a person Swartz was. Tech reporter and science fiction author Cory Doctorow posted an emotional tribute to his friend, but the most moving came from Swartz’s lover Quinn Norton.
“We were destroyed by the investigation, and by enduring so much together in the five years of the difficult love affair of difficult people. In the end he told me he needed to get away from me,” Norton wrote. “I let him go, and waited for the day he’d come back. I knew that one day we’d have a day to be together again, though probably not as lovers. Together, as something that doesn’t have a word. He went on to another relationship, and I know he touched her like he did me, because that’s how he touched people.”