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Aaron Swartz

[ 57 ] January 12, 2013 |

R.I.P.

More on the federal prosecution brought against him here and here . The fact that the federal government isn’t willing to prosecute torturers but will prosecute you for making obscure academic articles authors generally weren’t directly compensated for available says a lot, none of it good.

…More from Rick Perlstein. And Greenwald.

…from the official statement from Swartz’s parents and partner:

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.

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  1. Rob Wolfe says:

    I am seeing a lot of online commentary along the lines of “the government killed him”. This is minimizing his agency as a human being.
    Yes, he was facing charges that were stupid and could have landed him in jail had he been convicted but that is not usually enough to push someone to suicide. He made a choice to commit an act of civil disobedience and he made another choice to end his life, possibly when it became clear there was a price to pay for his civil disobedience.
    Part of civil disobedience is being aware that you are at risk for punishment and accepting that risk.
    None of this is to say that his prosecution is smart on the part of the government, just that it was less surprising than many folks seem to be acting.

    • Way to show a bit of sympathy there.

    • Bruce Baugh says:

      You apparently have never had severe clinical depression, nor watched anyone who has it closely as they battle with it. It is very damned hard sometimes. Lots of people with it commit suicide even without the burden of the shitty harassment he was getting, and lots of us who have it and dangle on the edge of suicide without going over nonetheless do ourselves grave harm because our deepest thoughts and feelings are all messed up.

      Rob, you should do two things this weekend.

      #1. Be deeply ashamed of yourself for posting such callous, ignorant tripe.

      #2. Spend at least a couple of hours before the new work week starts understanding what’s actually up with suicide and depression, starting with good groups like the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

      You won’t be able to undo the toss-off effort that made you part of the problem today. But you can learn enough not to wish to do it in the future.

    • Jameson Quinn says:

      Sure, most of the blame for his death lies on his shoulders where, at this point, it does no good nor harm. That leaves plenty to spare for a stupid policy of paywalled articles, a policy that was indefensible to begin with.

      • Jameson Quinn says:

        I don’t intended to blame living people for their depression. I just don’t see any reason to fight about that when they’re dead.

        • Jameson Quinn says:

          And I do applaud the courageous act which got him prosecuted. The world would be a better place if there were some commonly-used P2P way for any of us with JSTOR access to be mini-Swartzes. It’s crazy that it’s easier for someone to get bootleg episodes of Doctor Who than bootleg academic articles.

          • Jameson Quinn says:

            And while we’re at it, the P2P thing should have a canonical discussion thread for each article. Last month I found an obscure numerical typo in a 20-year-old article, and I honestly suspect that I could be the first to notice. I wrote the author but knew that was futile.

            Also, pony.

            • Cody says:

              What a novel concept – freedom of information and civil discourse.

              Imagine if it was easier for me to read about science then watch free TV all day. Unfortunately, learning is a heavily privileged activity still.

              The internet has done a lot (I imagine – wasn’t alive back then!) to help this, but you do eventually hit a substantial wall.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

        Actually, it’s not even about the paywalled articles. It’s about the disproportional prosecutorial response to what Swartz did about those paywalled articles (a response that even JSTOR apparently fought behind the scenes, but to no avail).

        • Belle Waring says:

          Yeah, because he didn’t even do anything with the articles! He’s a legitimate JSTOR user via Harvard; they cut off his access; he bypassed physically by mildly hacking MIT (more like the most minor B&E ever, or trespass with intent to create criminal mischief, or some bullshit); and then–that’s it. He never shared the articles with anyone, and he gave them all back when asked. Seriously, I had never realized how unbelievable the prosecution was.

          • cpinva says:

            he didn’t “give them all back when asked”, because he never physically removed them to begin with, he simply downloaded copies of them, to his own hard drives. he did break into the facilities, several times, to access the database, apparently causing disruption of services to other users, because he overloaded the system. as well, he introduced a foreign application into the system, in order to facilitate his downloading. i don’t know if that caused any additonal problems with the system, none of the articles mentioned that.

            clearly, he committed multiple illegal acts, but none, either individually, or in the aggregate, that would appear to warrant the level of prosecution, and potential punishment, he was facing. had DOJ gone after torturers and bankers, who caused a lot more damage, to a lot more people, resulting in actual deaths, with this level of zeal, i might be far more impressed. i’m not.

            • Crissa says:

              Actually, that’s part of the problem: They never proved he overloaded the system. Where he hacked in was on their local network, so it used bandwidth unavailable outside the building.

              He potentially overloaded the system, but it never came down or was inaccessible to other users. They’re prosecuting him for potential harm that never did happen – and was unlikely to happen because he broke into the local network rather than using the external interfaces.

    • Walt says:

      The government hounded him to death.

    • Angry Geometer says:

      If you didn’t know him, keep your trap shut and show a little respect, OK?

      I have a really hard time with people who didn’t know anything about Aaron ignorantly opining that he killed himself over the JSTOR incident. Both the people who want to make him a martyr and people like you who just want a chance to make a cheap glib comment on the interwebs.

      People want to believe there was a rational reason for this. They want a scapegoat. They want a story that makes sense. But suicide almost never makes sense.

      Aaron loved being an activist. He loved a dogfight. I never got any impression that he was unwilling to go to prison if that’s what it took to change the world for the better. David Foster Wallace (one of Aaron’s biggest heroes, and now I wish he wasn’t) wasn’t being hounded by the police, and he killed himself, too.

      He was one of the few true geniuses I’ve known in my life, and one of the wisest and most generous friends. So don’t assume the few facts you learned about him from some blog gives you the context to understand or hold forth on why he did it. It’s fucking tacky and ignorant.

      Even his friends can’t understand why he did it at this point. You surely can’t.

      • Origami Isopod says:

        I am so sorry. I’ve lost friends to suicide before, but none of those situations were anything like this one.

      • streamfortyseven says:

        OK, my question is this – Did anyone see Aaron Swartz on the 9th or 10th of January? His body was found on the morning of the 11th. I’ve done quite a few involuntary commitment hearings where prospective patients are suicidally depressed and have attempted or threatened suicide, and Aaron’s tweets reveal absolutely no evidence of depression, no intimation of suicidal intent or thoughts, nothing like that. His case, if it had gone to trial, had a good chance of becoming another colossal defeat for a Government that really doesn’t like to lose – and this Government has carried out extrajudicial killings of American citizens in the recent past, in the past two years.

        http://www.flickr.com/photos/streamfortyseven/8383522943/

        • streamfortyseven says:

          more – from his remembrance page: “Last morning, I got message from a friend on Whatsapp. “Aaron Swartz committed suicide?” I was like “Are you kidding me? We met on Wed. and he said see you tomorrow when I got off the train!”. … Last time I spoke to him was on the train back from an event with others. We six were talking about buying nonprofits and shutting them down, about building a robot to punch people in faces when they break build, about should or should not believe in science, about one insightful webmaster should buy all the DNSs with any possible variance , for example, purpose.org, purpose.com, purpose.net, purpose.*. We stopped the DNS topic after a bit, but Aaron himself was still entertainted by this joke, “doulbe-purpose, multipurpose..” Somehow, he was a complete adult and forever kid at the same time.
”

    • Origami Isopod says:

      How edgy. Do you fancy yourself “the voice of cold reason” here?

    • pseudonymous in nc says:

      You have also apparently not been placed under sustained pressure by a federal prosecutor who wants a high-profile scalp and is willing to parse your every utterance in the most damning way possible for a judge’s consumption.

      So kindly fuck the fuck off.

  2. jeer9 says:

    Very wise words from Doctorow:

    Because whatever problems Aaron was facing, killing himself didn’t solve them. Whatever problems Aaron was facing, they will go unsolved forever. If he was lonely, he will never again be embraced by his friends. If he was despairing of the fight, he will never again rally his comrades with brilliant strategies and leadership. If he was sorrowing, he will never again be lifted from it.

    Depression strikes so many of us. I’ve struggled with it, been so low I couldn’t see the sky, and found my way back again, though I never thought I would. Talking to people, doing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, seeking out a counsellor or a Samaritan — all of these have a chance of bringing you back from those depths. Where there’s life, there’s hope. Living people can change things, dead people cannot.

    • Bruce Baugh says:

      He is right. The hell of really serious depression is partly that you can’t make yourself feel the truth of it. Not everyone there gets precisely this symptom, but I’m not alone in having my most depressed self-destructive moment filled with a crystal clarity, a sense of being much more astute, wise, and insightful than I ever was before and than anyone else around me was.

      It’s part of why people who find themselves living with depression need a lot of ready access to help quickly. You may only get moments when that lying sense of rightness lifts. I was fortunate that there was help I could call, when I got one of those moments; without it I’d probably not be here right now. And I’d had the benefit of years to prepare thanks to not-so-horrible levels of depression; if the worst had hit when I was Aaron’s age…I don’t see how I could have made it either.

      Getting through those times is very often a matter of sheer willpower. And the thing is, when your life is fucked by something big and real, whether it’s federal bullying, an untreatable disease, or something else that actually is a problem, intellect isn’t always enough. If hope has failed, then survival becomes very iffy indeed.

  3. Semanticleo says:

    There is a difference between prosecutorial discretion, and selective enforcement; the latter being worthy of being a crime, IMO. Yes, he made a young man’s mistake. The first mistake is thinking you have any more liberty than say, the choice between paper and plastic bags at the supermarket. The second mistake is thinking your life is over at 26.

    • Curmudgeon says:

      The notion that life cannot be over at a young age is complete and utter trite bullshit.

      A felony conviction means your life is over whether you’re sixteen, thirty-two, or sixty-four. So does losing a large civil judgment, unemployability, severe chronic illness, terminal illness, or irrecoverable economic failure.

      For people in these situations, death is an end to suffering. It is a tragedy to the next of kin, but that tragedy does not and cannot reduce the fact that the dead person is no longer suffering.

      • Vance Maverick says:

        I could understand the outbreak of trolls on the blog, though I regretted it. But what could account for this outbreak of assholes? Seriously, a “large civil judgment” means your life is over?

        • Bruce Baugh says:

          Decades in prison, much of it for the sin of refusing to plead to a felony, is not a civil judgment.

          • Vance Maverick says:

            Of course, and neither are “chronic illness”, etc. My point is that it’s not for us to judge that others’ lives are “over”. People do indeed, all too often, decide for themselves that their lives are over, but let’s don’t try ratifying the decision.

            • Bruce Baugh says:

              Look, go read what I wrote to Rob Wolfe, and check out the links, because clearly you need a clue. You simply don’t know what you’re talking about with this stuff.

              (The alternative is that you do understand and are just being a monster. I don’t assume that for LGM commenters, disregarding here the obvious trolls. I prefer to think that you’re blustering and clueless than that you are callous enough to write that shit with any comprehension of the realities.)

              • Vance Maverick says:

                Bruce, I’m pretty sure you and I are in complete agreement. I have all kinds of sympathy with the depressed, and I’m trying to call out Curmudgeon above for callousness.

                • Bruce Baugh says:

                  OK, Vance. I foundered, then on the not ratifying the decision part. I see that kind of phrasing used to mean something “the deceased was a wimp or loser”. I’m sorry for projecting where it didn’t belong.

                • Vance Maverick says:

                  My fault for writing obscurely.

                  To try my point again with more words: Curmudgeon said that sure, it often happens that young people’s lives are effectively “over”. I object. Yes, I know people feel that way about themselves, for good or (more often) bad reasons. Either way, it’s wrong for us to say the same about them, from outside.

        • Curmudgeon says:

          It’s not your place to tell anyone who’s in a situation, such as the ones I listed, where there is literally no hope of their situation improving that their life is somehow still worth living.

          If someone in an untenable life situation decides to end their suffering then that is their choice. If someone in an untenable life situation decides to suffer until their natural death, then that is also their choice. Both choices must be respected because they are the individual’s choice–and their choice alone–to make.

    • Origami Isopod says:

      Well, at least you’re consistently an asshole, Leo.

  4. Bruce Baugh says:

    I’m going to put out a general plea, here.

    If you have never yourself been genuinely suicidal, and if you have never lived closely with someone who has been (whether they committed suicide or found some way to get through it)…you don’t know what you’re talking about, and please don’t jump in to make things worse just for the sake of commenting.

    See the links I left in my reply to Rob Wolfe above, or search yourself for information for the suicidal, particularly by those who’ve survived it themselves. Educate yourself. Then comment.

    None of the people who knew Aaron and are missing him need more ignorant blather. Nor do those of us who have a sense of what he lived through and died to, whether we knew Aaron or not. I know the urge to comment can be strong, but for once, take a moment to get a fucking clue first.

    • loganbacon says:

      You are correct.
      When a person is suicidal their thinking is not rational, they do not see things in proportion, they truly believe things like “my family will be better off without me.

      I’ve seen the aftermath of suicide.
      I’ve seriously considered suicide. I need antidepressants to live my life.

      If you have never been in these shoes, just stop talking.

    • Origami Isopod says:

      What Bruce said.

      In addition to random assholes and FUD spreaders, I’m seeing the usual self-righteous asshats on the topic of suicide come out on Boing Boing and elsewhere to preach the Bootstraps Gospel. One particularly grating one claimed that she “rewired [her] brain” with tai ch’i, meditation, diet, and “LOVE,” in all caps. I was happy to see the comment get nuked by the mods.

      • Crissa says:

        I hate those comments…

        …But I’ve seen it work in my spouse. If she isn’t doing her meditation, yoga or tai chi, and creating time for art or music, she falls into a terrible spiral.

        For me, it took years of anti-depressants, lots of time in the woods, and meaningful things to do like buy a house instead of stew about how powerless I was in a little apartment in the suburbs. Not exactly a replicateable formula at any rate.

  5. charles pierce says:

    Two surefire ways to stay out of prison:
    1) Don’t commit a crime.
    2) Work for HSBC and launder $800 billion in drug profits.

    “What laws for the rich?”
    – Jack McCoy

  6. Bijan Parsia says:

    RIP, indeed.

    I only knew Aaron a little when he was much younger. Eek. Actually I met him online when he was 13, so half of his life ago. I know he will be sorely missed.

    I rather suspect that he wouldn’t mind having his death be used to advance the causes he so passionately advocated or other like ones.

    And depression sucks.

  7. Eli Rabett says:

    What is needed is to a) name the prosecutor as the NYTimes did, Carmen M. Ortiz. In addition to mentioning her moral responsibility in every post and comment about Swartz, who was an immense source of good on the net, having, among other things, invented the RSS reader, we need to petition the White House asking for an explanation and condemning the Department of Justice and Ms. Ortiz (who will probably want to be a judge at some time in the future). It would be a fitting memorial if we could get 25K+ signatures. It would be better if her and her bosses were hauled before Congress to explain their actions, and it would be really good if some time in the future when they were up for some job, a web search gave them some grief.

      • Joel Patterson says:

        R.I.P. Aaron Swartz. I can’t see what social good came out of prosecuting him. As the WaPo pointed out, young Richard Feynman regularly cracked safes during the Manhattan Project and nobody prosecuted him. There weren’t any nuclear secrets in these JSTOR files.

        And as for the rumor of Carmen Ortiz running for Governor: the past 2 Democratic Gubernatorial campaigns (and the recent Senate campaign) in Massachusetts have relied in no small part on the creativity of computer entrepreneurs like Swartz to find and connect with voters. So if she wanted to run, she’s likely alienated some of the people she would really, really need to win.

        But the focus should not be on a hypothetical run but on the American citizen pressured to the point of losing his life savings, his liberty and his life. And just what exactly are the priorities of the DOJ in Massachusetts today?

        • Eli Rabett says:

          There is an appropriate whitehouse petition

          There is also an explanation of the facts of the case from an expert witness, Alex Samos who would have been called for the defense

          • jeer9 says:

            Eli,
            Thanks for the direct over to the Stamos piece. His elaboration of the facts in the case is eye-opening and only makes the lack of prosecutorial discretion even more horrific, especially given the largesse our government has shown toward real financial and war criminals. While we can never know how large a part these charges played in AS’s final decision, it is clear his parents think they were substantial. Some commenters elsewhere have argued that this is routine DoJ procedure (ramped-up allegations which will later be bargained downward); however, it’s strange the way that strategy is rarely used against those who are better-connected (irony intended) than Mr. Swartz.

        • Origami Isopod says:

          A great many publishers of medical journals are headquartered in Boston and Cambridge. Draw your own conclusions.

    • pseudonymous in nc says:

      Carmen Ortiz may run the office, but as Quinn Norton and others have noted, AUSA Steve Heymann ran the prosecution, and having earned a NYT writeup for getting credit card hackers banged up, he appears to have wanted to go after hacktivists in the most thuggish way possible. I use the plural deliberately.

  8. Andrew Montin says:

    Maybe academics who contribute to the publicly-funded but closed-access research system ought to seriously start rethinking the way they go about things? Maybe they can band together in Swartz’s name and demand changes? I can’t think of any better way to honor his memory.

  9. cpinva says:

    the really sad part about this, aside from the obvious, is that mr. swartz was the kind of bright, young mind that our country desperately needs, to solve the kinds of problems we face, now and in the future. these youngsters should be nurtured, not prosecuted. the AG didn’t have to come down with a sledgehammer, she chose to, for whatever reason. yes, he clearly committed crimes, that did adversely affect others, and he should have faced punishment. that said, the draconian punishment the AG was seeking (that even the victim didn’t want), was way out of proportion, to the acts themselves. surely, a more creative, constructive approach could have been found, that would both punish him, and produce something worthwhile.

    no doubt, that AG will get a notch on her belt, but she’s hardly contributed to justice in this country.

    btw, to respond to a comment made above, prosecutorial discretion, and selective enforcement are, for all intents and purposes, the same thing. every time a prosecutor decides what cases to pursue, and what cases not to pursue, they are, for all intents and purposes, selectively enforcing the law, even though they may have completely legitimate grounds for their decision.

  10. [...] Scott Lemieux at Lawyers, Guns, and Money, lawyer Larry Lessig tells the tragic tale of a young, [...]

  11. David says:

    This was a really sad story and the more you learn about why he did it, it’s even sadder.

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