Friends and allies of Aaron Swartz charge that overzealous prosecutors and draconian intellectual property laws drove the promising young hacker to take his own life on Friday.
Swartz, 26, was arrested in 2011 for scraping articles from the academic archive JSTOR. The charges could have put Swartz in prison for decades, according to Ars Technica.
Aaron accomplished more in his 26 years than most of us will accomplish in our lifetimes. At the age of 14, he helped develop the RSS standard. He was an early member of the team that created reddit, which was sold to Condé Nast… before Aaron turned 20. Now independently wealthy, Aaron threw himself into political activism.
Swartz took up the flame of copyright reform and became a leader in the fight against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) last year.
He turned hacker, and that's what led to his downfall. After breaking the paywall on PACER, the website the US judiciary uses to distribute public court records, Swartz focused on JSTOR, an electronic library of academic papers. He downloaded massive quantities of papers from the JSTOR database by accessing the MIT network using a laptop hidden in a network closet.
The action was "inconsiderate," equivalent to paying by check at the grocery store while other people are waiting behind you in line, according to Alex Stamos, CTO of Artemis Internet, who had planned to testify as an expert witness in Swartz's defense at the trial. But federal prosecutors disagreed. They charged him with multiple counts of computer hacking, wire fraud, and other crimes. If convicted on all charges, Swartz could have spent decades in prison.
Depression and suicide are complex problems. Blogger Charlie Lloyd cautioned against fitting the suicide into a narrative, such as, "It's the compassionate genius who was a little too good, or the activist hounded down by the government, or why would such a promising and beloved young person do something like this, or gosh there seems to be a link between creativity and mental illness, or some other well-meaning script."
But Swartz's family and partner blame the prosecution.
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.
I don't have a lot to add to the outpouring of grief and outrage sweeping the Internet. I agree that depression and suicide are complex problems, and we don't know whether prosecutors drove Swartz to suicide.
On the other hand, the prospect of occupying a prison cell into middle age certainly would not have improved Swartz's mental state.
And intellectual property laws in the US are a national shame. From their original, beneficial roots as a means of encouraging creative work, intellectual property law has become a machine designed to allow businesses to continue making money long past the point of reasonableness, while hounding people with punishments disproportionate to the actual damage they committed. Hopefully, heightened awareness brought on by Swartz's suicide will drive necessary legal reforms.
Our hearts go out to Swartz's family and friends.
— Mitch Wagner , Editor in Chief, Internet Evolution