Concededly, I didn’t know Aaron Swartz, much less who he was, until his name appeared in my Facebook and Twitter feeds. From what I’ve learned, he was integral to building the basics of RSS code which now ubiquitously dominates the structure of Web 2.0, and co-founded Reddit.
I’ve spent much of the past 48 hours learning more about him through those I follow on Twitter, and the articles they’ve posted and shared.
The core story appears to be this: Aaron was faced with a 2011 indictment from the federal government, charging him with downloading 4.8 million articles and other documents from JSTOR, a nonprofit online service for distributing scholarly articles, and plotting to make them available online for free. This indictment left him with the choice of fighting and disproving the charges, which would cost him millions of dollars, or taking his own life.
Tragically, he chose the latter.
Professor Larry Lessig has picked up on this binary choice that Aaron felt he was faced with, and argues that it needed not be so:
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. The “property” Aaron had “stolen,” we were told, was worth “millions of dollars” — with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime. But anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar. It was clear what this was not, yet our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed.
"Prosecutor as Bully" is the title of Lessig’s piece, and it concludes with this thought:
…the question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a “felon.” For in the 18 months of negotiations, that was what he was not willing to accept, and so that was the reason he was facing a million dollar trial in April — his wealth bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge. And so as wrong and misguided and fucking sad as this is, I get how the prospect of this fight, defenseless, made it make sense to this brilliant but troubled boy to end it
With Lessig’s framework in mind, I later read this piece by Alex Stamos, who was the expert witness who would have testified for Aaron against federal prosecutors.
In short, Aaron Swartz was not the super hacker breathlessly described in the Government’s indictment and forensic reports, and his actions did not pose a real danger to JSTOR, MIT or the public. He was an intelligent young man who found a loophole that would allow him to download a lot of documents quickly. This loophole was created intentionally by MIT and JSTOR, and was codified contractually in the piles of paperwork turned over during discovery.
What’s most striking about Stamos’ piece is that it highlights three things which Lessig implicitly uses as building blocks of his essay:
- Looking past the prosecutor’s zeal for a win, there wasn’t much law behind his decision to prosecute. As Lessig points out, the evidence doesn’t suggest that Aaron did something “legally wrong.” Which means, the wrong may have been an ethical wrong, and the decision to continue prosecution therefore became an ethical one. Lessig concludes “we need to get beyond the “I’m right so I’m right to nuke you” ethics that dominates our time.”
- The financial benefit to Aaron was nonexistent, which means money wasn’t a factor here. To repeat Lessig’s point above, “anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar. It was clear what this was not.”
- Ultimately at issue here was the architecture of MIT’s network. Swartz had accessed the documents by "accessing an unlocked closet on an open campus, one which was also used to store personal effects by a homeless man." Stamos writes: "MIT is aware of the controls they could put in place to prevent what they consider abuse, such as downloading too many PDFs from one website or utilizing too much bandwidth, but they choose not to."
The purpose of my blog is to filter the signal from the noise about what a world of 5B smartphones will look like. And after reading everything to date, I can’t help but notice how un-2013 the facts of this case are.
Aaron Swartz physically plugged into a university’s network and downloaded 4.8M PDFs. This involved an Acer laptop, an ethernet cable, a closet, and some custom codes created by Aaron. There was no smartphone or WiFi involved.
Aaron’s “hack” occurred in September 2010, almost 26 months ago.
Today, Acer is in restructuring, and Windows (the OS on his Acer laptop) is not longer the dominant OS. In fact, by 2016 Android and iOS combined will own Microsoft’s 2008 market share.
Also, MIT’s network is mostly WiFi, and the university does not appear to have changed the security for access to its network. LTE networks offer students or hackers with mobile phones and tablets (which are steadily beginning to supplement or replace laptops) competitive speeds for download.
The world has changed rapidly in 26 months. And it is still changing. If there was harm done by Aaron, it appears to have been a paper cut in the grand scheme of things.
Which only compounds the seriousness behind the growing questions about the discretion of the US Attorney who pursued this case and left Aaron with a binary choice of financial duress or death.
The law didn’t *need* to win here. Aaron’s suicide guaranteed that outcome will never happen. But regardless, there was a loss, and this loss resonates. He was clearly a talent, if not a key architect behind today’s web.
There’s been something new and unusual and discomfiting about seeing a tweet sent to the Twitter handle of a deceased 26 year old man. The account will live on, but he will not. One can’t help but wonder why that is, what it means, and why it needed to be so.