News and Comments About the Suicide of Aaron Swartz

5 years ago

Perhaps you, like me, first learned about Aaron Swartz in Internet Activist, a Creator of RSS, Is Dead at 26, Apparently a Suicide at The NYTimes. In the days since then, the tech community and many news sources have reported, processed, and taken action in response to Swartz's passing. In this post, I'll summarize and organize that information.

Aaron Swartz by Sage Ross via Flickr.

The Facts

Swartz was a brilliant young man. At the age of 14 he helped create RSS, the syndication technology that lets you follow blogs. He formed a company that later became Reddit. He formed an activist group called Demand Progress. He fought for freedom of information and worked to end SOPA and PIPA. By breaking into a computer network at MIT, he gained access to JSTOR, a subscription-only service for distributing scientific and literary journals. He downloaded millions of articles from JSTOR. Because of that he was indicted on a federal charge. JSTOR decided not to prosecute the case, but MIT went along with the federal prosecution.

Swartz suffered from bouts of depression. Some commenters believe the federal indictment may have played a part in his suicide and that belief raised a maelstrom of controversy. Before looking at some of the reaction from the web community, take a look at Swartz in action in this speech, "How We Stopped SOPA."

The Response

Many, including Aaron Swartz's parents and partner blamed the federal indictment and the way the case was handled for Aaron's suicide. In a statement from his parents and partner, they said,

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.

In Processing the loss of Aaron Swartz, danah boyd wrote,

What made me so overwhelmingly angry yesterday was the same thing that has been boiling in my gut for the last two years. When the federal government went after him – and MIT sheepishly played along – they weren’t treating him as a person who may or may not have done something stupid. He was an example. And the reason they threw the book at him wasn’t to teach him a lesson, but to make a point to the entire Cambridge hacker community that they were p0wned. It was a threat that had nothing to do with justice and everything to do with a broader battle over systemic power.

Lawrence Lessig's response was angry as well. His post, Prosecutor as Bully states,

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. From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way.

Cory Doctorow wrote RIP Aaron Swartz at He talked about meeting Swartz when Swartz was 15 years old, and said,

The post-Reddit era in Aaron's life was really his coming of age. His stunts were breathtaking. At one point, he singlehandedly liberated 20 percent of US law. PACER, the system that gives Americans access to their own (public domain) case-law, charged a fee for each such access. After activists built RECAP (which allowed its users to put any caselaw they paid for into a free/public repository), Aaron spent a small fortune fetching a titanic amount of data and putting it into the public domain. The feds hated this.

Kathy Gill put together a collection of commentary on Aaron Swartz and the legal system at The Moderate Voice. She introduced the page with,

I spent much of my weekend trying to reconcile how the Department of Justice slapped the wrists of HSBC for widespread money laundering but wanted to send a young idealist, Aaron Swartz, to prison for 35 years (or more) because of an act that harmed no individual and no organization.

MIT Reacts

MIT To Launch Internal Investigation Following Death Of Aaron Swartz at ReadWriteWeb shared an announcement by MIT president L. Rafael Reif,

I have asked Professor Hal Abelson to lead a thorough analysis of MIT's involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in fall 2010 up to the present.

Suggestion for Change

In A Modest Proposal for Academic Publishing, Laura McKenna at Apt 11D talked about Aaron and his belief in free access to academic information. Her modest proposal,

By removing the two middlemen – the academic publishers and the database companies -- universities could save money, and academic research could be freely available to all.

Instead of sending the finished academic journals to the publishing companies, the journal editors should simply upload the articles to a university website. The hard work of producing the content and the peer review process has already been done. Few people actually read the hard copy of journal, so there is very little need to produce a dead tree version of the journal, collect subscriptions, and distribute it.


A comment at Reddit suggested,

A fitting tribute to Aaron might be a mass protest uploading of copyright-protected research articles. Dump them on Gdocs, tweet the link. Think of the great blu-ray encoding protest but on a bigger scale for research articles.

The idea quickly took off and the hashtag #pdftribute was used by individuals who posted research articles in a tribute to Aaron Swartz.

The links to information posted with the hashtag were quickly organized into a page. Audrey Watters provided a link to it.

Other Ways to Honor Aaron

Swartz supported a charity called Give Well. You can give a gift in his honor there. There's a site called Remember Aaron Swartz where you can read many tributes and find additional information.

Virginia DeBolt, BlogHer Section Editor for Tech
Virginia blogs at Web Teacher and First 50 Words.

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