While other 14-year-olds were clowning around, doing unimportant things, Aaron Swartz was co-writing the RSS (Rich Site Summary) specification. He also started the computer company Infogami, which later merged with Reddit. In January 11, 2013, he committed suicide by hanging himself. He was 26.
Background info on Aaron Swartz
In 2008, Swartz released a Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, urging Internet activists to download scientific journals then upload them to file-sharing networks. He then downloaded one-fifth of the PACER database, the system that allows Americans to access their own (public domain) case-law. Despite being investigated by the FBI, no charges were made.
In 2010, he downloaded scientific papers from JSTOR (Journal Storage, an online service for distributing academic articles), snuck into a computer wiring closet at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and set up a computer to give free access to the JSTOR database. Soon, Swartz started Demand Progress, a political activism organization that runs online campaigns and lobbies against Internet censorship. This team was one of the big fighters against SOPA/PIPA.
In January 2011, Aaron Swartz was caught breaking into MIT and arrested. He was charged in July with computer fraud, wire fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer for downloading 4.8 million articles from JSTOR. He faced up to 50 years in prison and $4 million in fines. JSTOR did not file a lawsuit against Swartz and after two months, enabled free access to more than 4 million articles, stating that they had been planning to do so and that Swartz’s move hastened the decision. Even though JSTOR declined filing a lawsuit, the government pursued the case. In September 2012, federal prosecutors had nine additional felony counts thrown at Swartz, with his trial set on Feb 4, 2013. They also denied plea bargain.
Clearly, Aaron Swartz was a brilliant young man. He was a cyberpunk. He believed that “information wants to be free”. The information he dealt with did not involve national security or personal information; it was information that could advance science. Not all academics and researchers belong to moneyed universities and companies, after all. Would he profit from the information? No.
Some people consider Swartz’s crime a victimless crime since JSTOR did not want to sue. Some believe Swartz broke laws and thus needed to be punished. Some blame Swartz’s depression for his tragic end. No matter which side you’re on, the thing that stands out about this case is proportionality: 50 years in jail and $4 million in fines for a minor and non-violent crime. Meanwhile, high finance executives steal billions and destroy people’s lives and dreams but get away scot-free (or at the most, get a slap on the wrist), even bailed out by the government. What a contrast!
Some believe that even if convicted, Swartz would be sentenced to just a fraction of the time. Somehow I doubt that. Originally he only had four counts then nine more were added. Then his plea deal was rejected. It was not unreasonable to expect that he would be made an “example” by giving him a disproportionately harsh sentence, as a threat to all the other hackers and possibly to help some people’s career.
Aftermath of the tragedy
After news of the suicide broke out over the Internet, researchers shared links to PDF copies of their research via Twitter using the hashtag #pdftribute. An expert witness on the case cast doubt on Swartz being the “super hacker” that the government portrayed him to be. Larry Lessig, the founder of Creative Commons and Swartz’s friend, considered the government’s treatment of Swartz as bullying. MIT announced an internal investigation to determine its possible role in the young man’s suicide. Anonymous, meanwhile, hacked the Web sites of MIT and the Department of Justice.
If there’s anything positive that can come out of this tragedy, it has to do with the push to review the existing cybercrime laws. Swartz was charged under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a federal law passed in 1984, back when computers were not as ubiquitous as they are today. This law vaguely states that it is illegal to “intentionally access a computer without authorization or exceed authorized access”. By that broad statement, nowadays, if you do something mundane such as browse online shopping sites or game sites while you’re at work, losing your job is the least of your concerns, for you are now a criminal who can be prosecuted and sent to jail. If you create a fake Facebook profile, you are violating the site’s terms of service, which is also a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. You can go to jail as well.
Image credit: Nick Gray from New York City, USA (Aaron Swartz and Nick Gray) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons