It’s always a tragedy when someone loses a life, but few have received as much attention from the internet community as the untimely passing of Aaron Swartz.

Swartz, a 26 year old internet rights activist and programmer, hung himself in his Brooklyn apartment on January 11, 2013. In his life he was what some would call a prodigy, having a hand in some of the most well-known facets of the internet today. At 15 he helped make Creative Commons and shortly after started the wiki platform Infogami which merged with Reddit in 2005. But recently he has become known as a champion for his advocacy and protection of internet rights, especially while SOPA and PIPA were dangerously close to being voted into existence. Demand Progress, an organization Swartz co-founded in 2010 to battle COICA (the predecessor of SOPA and PIPA), was one of the leaders in the charge to oppose the two bills and brought together over a million online users against them.

While his life’s devotion to the protection of internet freedom rallied over a million online users, his death has enraged just as many due to the events and circumstances surrounding his suicide.

Swartz was a month away from standing trial for 13 counts of felony, ranging from wire fraud to computer fraud, which carried a maximum sentence of 35 years in prison and a fine of $1 million when he decided to take his own life. And what was the crime he committed? The crime that was deemed so heinous that committing it would justify incarcerating a young man for longer than he’d been alive?

Here’s the gist of it: Swartz attached his laptop to MIT’s computer network and downloaded roughly 4 million academic articles from JSTOR. JSTOR, short for Journal Storage, is a digital library of academic journals that users can access with a subscription or for free if they’re only looking for older public domain content. This makes it a giant library full of material made readily available to registered users, or library card holders. So essentially, Swartz was faced with a sentence of 35 years in prison and a fine of $1 million dollars for, as Demand Progress has put it, “checking too many books out of the library.”

U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz charged Swartz with wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer and claimed that Swartz was planning to make the files available through P2P file-sharing sites. The word ‘hack’ was also thrown around like confetti at Mardi Gras, but Alex Stamos, a computer forensics investigator who was employed to be an expert witness for Swartz, claims that without a doubt this was not a hack:

“Aaron did not “hack” the JSTOR website for all reasonable definitions of “hack.” Aaron wrote a handful of basic python scripts that first discovered the URLs of journal articles and then used curl to request them. Aaron did not use parameter tampering, break a CAPTCHA, or do anything more complicated than call a basic command line tool that downloads a file in the same manner as right-clicking and choosing “Save As” from your favorite browser.”

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Lessig and Swartz at the launch party for Creative Commons in 2005
(photo courtesy of gohsuket)

Stamos also went on to say that had they gotten to the trial as planned, he would have taken the stand and, in response to being asked if he believed what Swartz had done was ‘wrong,’ stated that it was not ‘wrong’ but inconsiderate if anything, “the same way it is inconsiderate to write a check at the supermarket while a dozen people queue up behind you or to check out every book at the library needed for a History 101 paper.”

On the other hand, Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard professor, an icon of the internet rights movement, and a friend of Swartz, said that if Swartz had done what he was accused of doing then he had done something ‘wrong,’ if not legally then morally, saying that “the causes that Aaron fought for are my causes too. But as much as I respect those who disagree with me about this, these means are not mine.” Regardless of the ethical and legal infringements of Swartz’s alleged actions, everyone besides the prosecuting attorneys are in agreement that the penalty was grossly disproportionate  to the crime.

So what was it that blew this case to Hiroshima-like proportions? Was it the greed of the attorney, mouth slavering at the thought of winning such a hot topic case even after both MIT and JSTOR indicated they did not want to press charges? Was it the desire of unknown forces to make an example of an internet activist after the failure of SOPA and PIPA? Or was it simply the ignorance of a judicial system that would rather use ideas from the ’80s than go through the clerical work of keeping up with the gunshot pace of internet? Time will tell. As it stands there are only a few certainties that have come out of this shameful fiasco: the judicial understanding of the internet is outdated, it needs to be revised, and a brilliant young man is being buried today because of it.

Featured Photo of Aaron Swartz courtesy of ragesoss

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