The world recently lost a brilliant activist and a leading proponent of information freedom.
For those of us who have been living under a rock, Aaron H. Swartz was an American computer programmer, writer, political organizer, and a precocious and uncompromising digital activist who took his own life under suspicious circumstances on the 11th of January, 2013.
He was only 26.
Worthy, important causes will surface without a champion equal to their measure. Technological problems will go unsolved, or be solved a little less brilliantly than they might have been. And that’s just what we know. The world is robbed of a half-century of all the things we can’t even imagine Aaron would have accomplished with the remainder of his life.
- Swartz was involved in the development of the web feed format RSS, the website framework web.py, and the social news site Reddit, in which he was an equal partner after a merger with his Infogami company.
- Swartz also focused on sociology, civic awareness and activism. In 2010 he became a research fellow at Harvard University’s Safra Center for Ethics, directed by Lawrence Lessig. He founded the online group Demand Progress, known for its campaign against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA/PIPA), and later worked with the activist groups Rootstrikers and Avaaz. He also was a contributing editor to The Baffler and on the Council of Advisors to The Rules.
- It was in his role as a digital provocateur that his brilliance shone most brightly. By working on the technical standards for the Creative Commons, he helped extend the legal framework behind the free software movement to other creative endeavors. The impact is felt across the Internet and has helped reshape the public’s understanding of digital property rights more generally.
- Swartz was also passionate about freeing information paid for by public money, and about empowering ordinary people to bring about political change. He founded Demand Progress, an organization that uses technology to push for civil liberties and political reform.
In a series of tweets, Wikileaks claimed that Aaron Swartz was an ally and possible source for the organization. It was disclosed that Swartz "in communication" with founder Julian Assange during 2010 and 2011.
Wikileaks, which exposes classified information provided by anonymous sources, said it decided to reveal these details in light of the U.S. Secret Service's involvement in Swartz's case.
Although Wikileaks doesn't elaborate, the organization has a policy of maintaining anonymity for its sources. The Wikileaks website says;
As far as we can ascertain, Wikileaks has never revealed any of its sources. We cannot provide details about the security of our media organization or its anonymous drop box for sources because to do so would help those who would like to compromise the security of our organization and its sources.
At a 2013 memorial for Swartz at the Internet Archive, Carl Malamud recalled their work with PACER:
We brought in 20 million pages of … court documents from behind the … PACER pay wall. We found (them) infested with privacy violations: names of minor children, names of informants, …
… We sent our results to the Chief Judges of 31 District Courts … and they redacted those documents and … yelled at the lawyers that filed them and the Judicial Conference changed their privacy rules.
In 2008, Swartz downloaded, and released, approximately 20% of the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) database of United States federal court documents managed by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts.
PACER was charging 8 cents per page for information that Carl Malamud, founder og nonprofit group public.resource.org, contended should be free because government-produced documents are not covered by copyright.According to a report in The New York Times, the fees was,
...plowed back to the courts to finance technology, but the system [ran] a budget surplus of some $150 million, according to court reports
Moreover, PACER used technology that was obsolete, putting the country's legal system "behind a wall of cash and kludge."Malamud appealed to fellow activists, urging them to visit one of 17 libraries conducting a free trial of the PACER system, download court documents, and send them to him for public distribution.
After reading Malamud’s call for action, Swartz visited the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals library in Chicago and installed a Perl computer script. From September 4 to 20, 2008, it accessed approximately 18,000,000 documents and uploaded them to a cloud computing service. He then released the documents, amounting to 19,856,160 pages, to Malamud's public.resource.org.
On September 29, 2008, the GPO suspended the free trial, "pending an evaluation" of the program. Swartz's actions were subsequently investigated by the FBI. The case was closed after two months with no charges filed.
Swartz learned the details of the investigation as a result of filing a FOIA request with the FBI and described their response as the "usual mess of confusions that shows the FBI’s lack of sense of humor."
Aaron had written openly about suffering from depression. It couldn’t have helped that he faced a looming federal criminal trial for hacking and fraud charges.
In his headstrong stunt, he had arranged to download millions of academic articles from the JSTOR subscription database for free from September 2010 to January 2011, with plans to release them to the public.
JSTOR provides searchable, digitized copies of academic journals online. MIT had a subscription to the database, so Aaron brought a laptop onto MIT’s campus, plugged it into the student network and ran a script called keepgrabbing.py that aggressively — and at times disruptively — downloaded one article after another.
When MIT tried to block the downloads, a cat-and-mouse game ensued, culminating in Swartz entering a networking closet on the campus, secretly wiring up a laptop to the network, and leaving it there hidden under a box. A member of MIT’s tech staff discovered it, and Aaron was arrested by campus police when he returned to pick up the machine.
Aaron wasn’t as lucky with the JSTOR matter as he had been with PACER. The case was picked up by Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Heymann in Boston, the cybercrime prosecutor who won a record 20-year prison stretch for TJX hacker Albert Gonzalez. Heymann indicted Aaron on 13 counts of wire fraud, computer intrusion and reckless damage. The case has been wending through pre-trial motions for 18 months, and was set for jury trial on April 1.
In 2011, US federal prosecutors charged Swartz with a series of counts under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, crimes that could have sent him away to prison for upwards of 35 years if convicted.
The New York Times wrote of the case:
A respected Harvard researcher who also is an Internet folk hero has been arrested in Boston on charges related to computer hacking, which are based on allegations that he downloaded articles that he was entitled to get free.
David Segal of Demand Progress, a group Swartz co-founded said,
This makes no sense. It’s like trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library.
Larry Lessig, who worked closely with Aaron for years, disapproves of Aaron’s JSTOR hack. But in the painful aftermath of Aaron’s suicide, Lessig faults the government for pursuing Aaron with such vigor.
(Aaron) is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying. I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.
On January 12, 2013, Alex Stamos, a computer forensics investigator employed by the Swartz legal defense team, posted an online summary of the expert testimony he had been prepared to present in the JSTOR case, had Swartz lived to see trial. He wrote
If I had taken the stand as planned and had been asked by the prosecutor whether Aaron’s actions were “wrong”, I would probably have replied that what Aaron did would better be described as “inconsiderate”. In 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. It is inconsiderate to download lots of files on shared wifi … but none of these actions should lead to a young person being hounded for years and haunted by the possibility of a 35 year sentence
U.S. Attorney Ortiz asserted after the 2011 indictment that
stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.
On the morning of January 11, 2013, Swartz was found dead in his Crown Heights, Brooklyn apartment by his partner.A spokeswoman for New York's Medical Examiner reported that he had hanged himself but no suicide note was found.
The family and partner of Swartz created a memorial website on which they issued a statement, saying,
He used his prodigious skills as a programmer and technologist not to enrich himself but to make the Internet and the world a fairer, better place."
Swartz was eulogized by his friend and sometime attorney, Lawrence Lessig, who called Swartz’s prosecution an abuse of proportionality, saying further
… [The U.S.] government needs to [say] 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 ….
Blogger Cory Doctorow wrote:
Aaron had an unbeatable combination of political insight, technical skill, and intelligence about people and issues. I think he could have revolutionized American (and worldwide) politics. His legacy may still yet do so.
Swartz's funeral services were held on January 15, 2013, at Central Avenue Synagogue in Highland Park, Illinois. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, co-creator of the World Wide Web, delivered a eulogy at the service.
On January 19, hundreds attended a memorial at the Great Hall at Cooper Union. Speakers included Ben Wikler, Open Source advocate Doc Searls, 'Creative Commons' Glenn Otis Brown, journalist Quinn Norton, OK Go singer Damian Kulash, Yale Professor emeritus Edward Tufte, Givewell's Holden Karnofsky, author Tom Chiarella (also reading for David Foster Wallace), Roy Singham of ThoughtWorks, David Isenberg of Freedom to Connect, David Segal of Demand Progress, and Swartz's partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman.
On January 24, there was a memorial at San Francisco's Internet Archive with speakers including Journalist Danny O'Brien, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, Lisa Rein, EFF senior technologist Seth Schoen, Peter Eckersley, O'Reilly Media founder Tim O'Reilly, Molly Shaffer van Houweling, Alex Stamos, Internet law attorney Cindy Cohn, Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle, and Carl Malamud.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has launched an internal probe of the events leading up to the suicide of internet activist Aaron Swartz, who was facing federal charges for allegedly hacking into the school's journal archives. MIT President L. Rafael Reif gave a long Statement on Aaron’s Death, saying:
the trail of his (Aaron's) brief life shines with his brilliant creativity and idealism ... I want to express very clearly that I and all of us at MIT are extremely saddened by the death of this promising young man who touched the lives of so many. It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy ... Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT.
Furor over Swartz' death has reached the White House in the form of a petition asking for the removal of U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz who pressed the case against Swartz. The petition has been signed by nearly 12,000 people and needs 25,000 signatures by Feb. 11 to garner an official response from the White House.
The justice department said it was dropping all charges against him – pro-forma, since there was no longer a defendant to prosecute.
FAMILY & SUPPORTERS:
Swartz's family and supporters have laid blame for his death on an aggressive prosecution that used its powers to
hound him into a position where he was facing a ruinous trial, life in prison.
In a statement that also had harsh words for MIT, Swartz' family and partner 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.
JSTOR, which had stated it did not want to pursue charges against Swartz, posted a statement offering condolences to his family.
He was a truly gifted person who made important contributions to the development of the internet and the web from which we all benefit," JSTOR said in a statement. "The case is one that we ourselves had regretted being drawn into from the outset."
The mysterious hackers' group Anonymous broke onto the MIT website and posted a message in his memory. The message, before the page was taken down, said, among other things,
The federal sentencing guidelines enable prosecutors to cheat citizens of their constitutionally-guaranteed right to a fair trial. We call for this tragedy to be a basis for reform of computer crime laws, and the overzealous prosecutors who use them.
Anonymous also hacked the website of the U.S. Sentencing Commission. The initial hack was standard Anonymous fare, replacing the USSC homepage with a video in which a computerized voice spouted revolutionary threats.
After the site went offline and was restored, it was infiltrated again on Sunday—and Anonymous social media accounts distributed code that turned the USSC homepage into a playable game of Asteroids. Anyone who visited the site and typed in the Konami code could use a missile-equipped Nyan Cat to blast away at the various text and graphical elements on the page, revealing a Guy Fawkes mask underneath.
When the site went down again, the hackers moved on to a different government website: that of the U.S. Probation Office for the Eastern District of Michigan. There, typing in the Konami code brings up the following pop-up message:
Click OK and the Nyan Cat appears, allowing you to fire at will on the surrounding page until nothing remains but a picture of Swartz (see image at top).
Anonymous also claims to have distributed encrypted government files through the DoJ website, threatening to release the decryption codes (revealing the as yet unknown information held on the stolen files) if the government fails to comply with demands to reform flawed cybercrime laws — the laws under which Swartz was persecuted. The released files were named after Supreme Court justices. “A line has been crossed” with the zealous pursuit of charges against Swartz, the hackers’ statement noted.
In targeting the Sentencing Commission site, hackers symbolically took aim at a justice system wherein minimum sentencing laws put undue power in the hands of government prosecutors, who can exact guilty pleas from suspects afraid of facing hefty jail sentences at trial.