Get the best of Commons Magazine — FREE!


January 24, 2013

The Tragic Death of a Commons Hero

Aaron Swartz (1986-2013)

Aaron Swartz’s death is a sobering story about the collision of free culture activism with vindicative prosecutorial powers. It’s also about an amazing tech wizard and the personal costs of his idealism. Here’s hoping that Swartz’s tragic suicide at age 26 prompts some serious reflection about the grotesque penalties for a victimless computer crime and the unchecked power of federal prosecutors to intimidate defendants. Perhaps MIT, too, should reflect deeply on its core mission as an academic institution – to help share more knowledge, not fence it off.

Swartz was a hacker-wunderkind, a boy genius who played a significant role in many tech innovations affecting the Internet: RDF tags for Creative Commons licenses; a version of RSS software for syndicating web content; an early version of the platform that became Reddit, the user-driven news website. In 2006, when I interviewed Swartz for my book Viral Spiral, I was astonished to encounter a 19-year-old kid who had already done the path-breaking technical work that I just mentioned.

Swartz had been a junior high school student when he was doing mind-bending coding and design work for the Creative Commons licenses and their technical protocols. “I remember these moments when I was, like, sitting in the locker room, typing on my laptop, in these debates, and having to close it because the bell rang and I had to get back to class….”

When a windfall of cash came Swartz’s way following the sale of Reddit to Conde Nast, Swartz did not launch a new startup to make still more money. He intensified his activism and coding on behalf of free culture. He sought out new projects that would make information on the Internet more accessible to everyone.

In 2006, he worked with Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive to post complete bibliographic data for every book held by the Library of Congress – information for which the Library charged fees. A few years later, working with guerilla public-information activist Carl Malamud, Swartz legally downloaded a large fraction of court decisions that were hosted by PACER, the Public Access to Court Electronic Records. PACER is the repository of US court decisions. Swartz’s idea was to reclaim documents that taxpayers had already paid for. Why should we have to pay 10 cents per page to access them? (Those documents can now be found at Malamud’s site, public.resource.org.)

Swartz’s last gambit was to try to make scholarly journal articles more accessible. He had broken into a utility closet at MIT and downloaded millions of journal articles in the JSTOR database. Federal prosecutors, with MIT’s cooperation, threatened to put him in jail for 35 years and impose a $1 million fine. A rather fierce reaction for downloading material that Swartz had never distributed to anyone and had no intentions of profiting from. Even the commercial journal vendor, JSTOR, did not wish to prosecute.

So why such a draconian reaction? Because presecutors apparently wished to make an example of Swartz. Deter future behavior of this sort by making him suffer shock and awe. In a world in which copyright industries routinely vilify digital sharing as “piracy” – i.e., the equivalent of murder, pillage and rape – this is the only “appropriate” response. For the past 18 months, Swartz attempted to negotiate a settlement, but to no avail. The prospect of spending years in prison for a felony “crime” that resulted in no economic or personal harm, and to pay fines and attorneys’ fees that would result in personal bankruptcy, would depress anyone.

Larry Lessig, the copyright scholar and a friend of Swartz, took aim at federal prosecutors last week denouncing their bullying tactics. More than 29,000 people have signed a White House petition asking for the removal of the U.S. District Attorney Carmen Ortiz. The White House has a policy of making official responses if more than 25,000 signatures are collected, so perhaps this is not the end of the matter.

The Economist magazine published a touching tribute to Swartz with a headline that got it just right: “Commons man.” Swartz’s death is a huge, tragic loss. A website of remembrances, Remember Aaron Swartz, has more, much more about Aaron.

David Bollier thinks and writes about the commons at www.Bollier.org, where this post originally appeared under a Creative Commons Attribution license. Bollier’s commons activism is focused on the Commons Strategy Group and the The Commons Law Project. He is co-author (with Burns H. Weston) of the just-published book Green Governance: Ecological Survival, Human Rights, and the Law of the Commons (Cambridge University Press).