Privacy SOS

Aaron Swartz fought for all of us

As you probably know, internet freedom activist, computer programmer, and 21st century "nerd renaissance man" Aaron Swartz killed himself at the age of 26 on Friday, January 11. Swartz was facing 35 years in federal prison on a host of obscure "computer crimes" and "wire fraud" charges for allegedly attempting to download the entire JSTOR catalogue from a computer network at MIT. He is survived by his parents, his girlfriend, and thousands of people all over the world who admired his insatiable curiosity, his analytical mind, his tactical and strategic brilliance, and his tenacity as an activist for social and political change. (Years ago the DOJ investigated Swartz but declined to prosecute him for liberating PACER data from the US court system. That information is technically public but it costs money to access.)

His family released a statement following his death that indicts both MIT for staying silent about his prosecution and the Massachusetts US Attorney's office for over zealousness. 

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.

Further implicating the federal government, recently disclosed documents from his trial indicate that the Secret Service took over the investigation into Swartz two days before he was arrested in July 2011.

In his brief but brilliant life, Swartz "accomplished more…than nearly everyone I know will get done in their entire lives," writes his friend and collaborator, Matt Stoler. In "Aaron Swartz' Politics," Stoler argues that his untimely death should serve as a call to action for all Americans, to confront and dismantle the corruption that has taken hold of our government and our society. Instead of identifying and valuing genius like Swartz', Stoler says, we let the state eat people alive when they rub up against the status quo, or challenge us to be better.

I want to make a few points about why it’s not just sad that he is gone, but a tragedy, a symbol for all of us, and a call to action.
Aaron suffered from depression, but that is not why he died. Aaron is dead because the institutions that govern our society have decided that it is more important to target geniuses like Aaron than nurture them, because the values he sought – openness, justice, curiosity – are values these institutions now oppose. In previous generations, people like Aaron would have been treasured and recognized as the remarkable gifts they are. We do not live in a world like that today. And Aaron would be the first to point out, if he could observe the discussion happening now, that the pressure he felt from the an oppressive government is felt by millions of people, every year. I’m glad his family have not let the justice system off the hook, and have not allowed this suicide to be medicalized, or the fault of one prosecutor. What happened to Aaron is not isolated to Aaron, but is the flip side of the corruption he hated.
As we think about what happened to Aaron, we need to recognize that it was not just prosecutorial overreach that killed him. That’s too easy, because that implies it’s one bad apple. We know that’s not true. What killed him was corruption. Corruption isn’t just people profiting from betraying the public interest. It’s also people being punished for upholding the public interest. In our institutions of power, when you do the right thing and challenge abusive power, you end up destroying a job prospect, an economic opportunity, a political or social connection, or an opportunity for media. Or if you are truly dangerous and brilliantly subversive, as Aaron was, you are bankrupted and destroyed. There’s a reason whistleblowers get fired. There’s a reason Bradley Manning is in jail. There’s a reason the only CIA official who has gone to jail for torture is the person – John Kiriako – who told the world it was going on. There’s a reason those who destroyed the financial system “dine at the White House”, as Lawrence Lessig put it. There’s a reason former Senator Russ Feingold is a college professor whereas former Senator Chris Dodd is now a multi-millionaire. There’s a reason DOJ officials do not go after bankers who illegally foreclose, and then get jobs as partners in white collar criminal defense. There’s a reason no one has been held accountable for decisions leading to the financial crisis, or the war in Iraq. This reason is the modern ethic in American society that defines success as climbing up the ladder, consequences be damned. Corrupt self-interest, when it goes systemwide, demands that it protect rentiers from people like Aaron, that it intimidate, co-opt, humiliate, fire, destroy, and/or bankrupt those who stand for justice.
Swartz will be remembered as a friend, a lover, a genius, an activist, an inventor, and a troublemaker. Even those of us who never knew him personally should be grateful for his short but brilliant life, and angry that it was extinguished under these circumstances. Among his many other talents, Swartz was a prolific and thoughtful writer. Spend some time with his blog and you'll "lean into the pain" of his loss. It's worth it, just like he says.
The young Aaron Swartz helped us preserve the internet as a place for free expression, unbeholden to corporate or government interests that would prefer we only have access to certain ideas, or particular views on current events, or limited channels of communication whereby we can fight back against efforts to curtail our liberty. Swartz recognized the power of an open and free internet and he put his considerable talents to good use ensuring it would remain so.
Let's remember him by doubling our own work to ensure that the internet remains free and open. If you are outraged by the government's obsessive persecution of the young Mr. Swartz — particularly amidst its slap-on-the-wrist treatment of substantial abusers of the rule of law — channel that rage into organizing to protect the networks and possibilities that inspired him in life. 

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.