Aaron Swartz Suicide: Was He Hounded to Death By an Unjust Prosecution?


I didn't know Reddit co-founder and RSS co-creator (at age 14) Aaron Swartz. I don't even really know the people he hung out with well. By all accounts, Swartz was a pioneer and uncompromising person of principle, who made the world a better place in many ways. At the time of his death, he faced a potential of 35 years in prison and up to $1 million in fines for downloading 4.8 million academic journal articles from JSTOR.

Anyone reading this who's in college or involved in academia knows what JSTOR is: a repository of academic journals, mostly obscure, and often quite old, but not old enough to be genuinely interesting in most cases. I do academic research and I can count the times I've found something valuable on JSTOR on the fingers of one hand. The huge database contains such titles as the single issue of Advances in Sex Research, published in 1963.

This example of 60's academia features articles like this:

Aaron Swartz was trying to free millions of articles like this from their prison of firewalled, pay-for-use access. JSTOR is free through just about every college or university library. It's also accessible through many public library systems. However, schools and libraries pay for this stuff. It's never really "free." 

In order to understand the twisted, strange world of academic publishing, the Sex journal publishers provide "authors or their research sponsors and funders with the option of paying a publishing fee and thereby making an article fully and permanently available for free online access – open access – immediately on publication to anyone, anywhere, at any time."

So, the academics that write the articles have to pay the publisher to offer it to free for educational purposes online. Meanwhile, the journals charge for access and membership, and aggregators like JSTOR charge for access, too.

Aaron Swartz was trying to fight this bizarre system when he broke into MIT and used a laptop computer to log in to the school's computer system and download JSTOR's database (which was substandard at that time and hasn't improved a whole lot since). JSTOR itself declined to pursue any charges against Swartz, and has made more of its databases available for free. They have issued a statement expressing regret for Swartz's death.

Federal prosecutors didn't see it the same way as JSTOR or most others familiar with the situation. Swartz was indicted in 2011, and was awaiting trial on charges of "stealing" from JSTOR. Carmen M. Ortiz, the U.S. Attorney for the Massachusetts District, chose to pursue the case. "Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars," she said.

Technically, Ortiz is right. In reality, Ms. Ortiz is part of a Federal system that voluntarily dropped charges or never even began prosecution of any of the 25 people known to be responsible for the 2008 financial crisis that has devastated the lives of millions in the U.S., as well as around the world. That's just one small example of the "theft" overlooked every day by this woman's office.

Her choice to pursue Aaron Swartz seems less high-minded than vindictive, opportunistic, or both. Perhaps she believed that Swartz' uncompromising stance about freedom of information needed to be countered. It's more likely that his celebrity status — well known, but not extremely powerful or wealthy — made him a great target. She was rumored last month to be in the running for Massachusetts’s governor, although she has denied she has any interest, and was named Bostonian of the Year in 2011. I have a hard time thinking someone truly deserving of such an award would think Aaron Swartz deserved 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine for downloading the musty academic files of JSTOR.

Part of Aaron Swartz's story is the vulnerability of very bright, sensitive people, especially those with unique thought processes and a taste for freedom. Another part of his story is that the injustice and brutality that Victor Hugo wrote about in Les Miserables didn't end in 19th century France, and the insanity of Josef K's persecution didn't stop in Kafka's early 20th century Vienna. 

Victor Hugo was a realist and observer of life. Kafka thought everything he wrote was hilarious, but he, too was an observer of the human condition.

We have our Javerts today, and our Kafkaesque inspectors and judges. If you have any respect for what Aaron Swartz stood for, make an example of Ms. Ortiz. Please do not allow her to continue a public or political career. Do not forget that she may not have caused Aaron Swartz's death directly — he did take his own life — but she ignored countless real criminals, crimes and victims as she persecuted him. 

Maybe she did this because he was young. He was brave. He was brilliant. He challenged authority. He stood for freedom.