Total Pageviews

Friday, January 18, 2013

Remembering Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz addressed the Freedom to Connect conference in Washington on May 21.

Last Updated, 9:02 p.m. Friends, colleagues and admirers of Aaron Swartz, a digital activist and innovator, posted tributes to him online on Saturday, after an early-morning report of his death by The Tech, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology student newspaper. An uncle, Michael Wolf, told The Times that Mr. Swartz, 26, had apparently committed suicide in ew York on Friday.

Later on Saturday, his family and partner said in a statement posted on a memorial site dedicated to collecting memories of Mr. Swartz, “Our beloved brother, son, friend, and partner Aaron Swartz hanged himself on Friday in his Brooklyn apartment. We are in shock, and have not yet come to terms with his passing.”

In a blog post for Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow recalled becoming friends with the young man shortly after Mr. Swartz helped create RSS as a 14-year-old. That post is illustrated by video of Mr. Swartz describing his more recent efforts to battle against copyright law at a conference in Washington last year.

Another friend, the legal scholar and copyright activist Lawrence Less! ig, wrote an angry post, describing the federal government’s decision to indict Mr. Swartz in 2011 â€" when he was charged 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 â€" as a kind of “bullying.”

Even though, Mr. Lessig wrote, he disagreed with the concept of downloading copyrighted material and distributing it for free, he was appalled by the federalprosecution of his young friend. “Early on, and to its great credit,” Mr. Lessig noted, JSTOR “declined to pursue their own action against Aaron, and they asked the government to drop its. M.I.T., to its great shame, was not as clear, and so the prosecutor had the excuse he needed to continue his war against the “criminal” who we who loved him knew as Aaron.”

He continued:

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. The “property” Aaron had “stolen,” we were told, was worth “millions of dollars” â€" 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 li! ar. It wa! s clear what this was not, yet our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed.

Aaron had literally done nothing in his life “to make money.” He was fortunate Reddit turned out as it did, but from his work building the RSS standard, to his work architecting Creative Commons, to his work liberating public records, to his work building a free public library, to his work supporting Change Congress/FixCongressFirst/Rootstrikers, and then Demand Progress, Aaron was always and only working for (at least his conception of) the public good. He was brilliant, and funny. A kid genius. A soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think That person is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying.

In their statement posted online Saturday evening, Mr. Swartz’s family and partner did blame the government and M.I.T. for contributing to his decision to take his own lfe, writing:

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 M.I.T. contributed to his death. The U.S. 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, M.I.T. refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.

Tributes also appeared on Twitter, where Mr. Swartz had recently posted a note drawing attention to the campaign for the Treasury to mint a $1 trillion platinum coin to avoid a showdown over the debt ceiling.

John Schwartz, a New York Times correspondent, chronicled Mr. Swartz’s fight to make more information available online. In 2009, he wrote an article and a Lede blog post about the young activist’s efforts to “liberate” documents and records from federal databases. In 2011, he was again in touch with Mr. Swartz after his arrest by the federal government.

Below is the reporter’s personal recollection of the young activist.

Aaron Swartz made a deep impression on everyone he met â€" whether it was his obvious brilliance, his cutting wit or his ardent dedication to issues concerning the Internet, public rights and civil liberties.

Susan Crawford, a professor at Cardozo law school in New York and a former technology adviser to the Obama administration, said that on a visit to Boston during her time in the government, “I remember Aaron walking quickly beside me through Cambridge, his arms held stifly at his side, urging me to change the the nation’s technology policy. I could never live up to his expectations of me.”

Many who knew him felt the same way. Still, no matter what, however, the humor was there.

After my article appeared in the New York Times in 2009, describing his cloak-and-dagger efforts to release some 20 million pages of federal court documents to the Internet for free access by the public â€" a feat that got him investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation â€" Mr. Swartz blogged about the report in a typically puckish manner, announcing the story in the form or a personal ad:

Attention attractive people: Are you looking for someone respectable enough that they’ve been personally vetted by the New York Times, but has enough of a bad-boy streak that the vetting was because they ‘liberated’ millions of dollars of governm! ent docum! ents If so, look no further than page A14 of today’s New York Times.

I liked him. He was about the age of my daughter; I told him that my own father is Aaron Schwartz, so I felt funny talking with him. I then joked that if she hadn’t been in a committed relationship at the time of our interviews, I might have tried to set them up. He smiled awkwardly at my old-guy gaffe.

Two years after that article appeared, Mr. Swartz wrote to me again to say that he might have news. “Do you have any free time this week or next” he wrote. “I might have a followup story for you if you’re interested.”

When I asked what was up, he responded, “I have a friend who may get indicted (there’s a grand jury out).”

And then he sent a lengthy document with title, “EMBARGOED FOR USE ONLY IF AND WHEN AARON GETS ARRESTED.”

I responded: “wait â€" you’re the ‘friend’”

“Yeah,” he replied. “It’s a very close friendship. :)”

After the indictmen, I checked in again to ask how he was holding up. It was, “a crazy roller coaster,” he wrote back, “but I’m doing pretty well.”

John Schwartz writes as @jswatz on Twitter.

Robert Mackey also remixes the news on Twitter @robertmackey.