This weekend we were inundated with debate about the legacy of Internet prodigy Aaron Swartz, the 26-year-old co-creator of RSS and Reddit who died Friday by his own hand. Was he a hero for those craving more access to files online, or a renegade who broke laws without considering the broader consequences?
Truthfully, my thoughts were mainly focused on the nature of his death. I've been open about my own battles with depression over the years, and whenever someone loses the war, it cuts me to the core -- even if I never met the person. If you want my thoughts on that aspect, go here.
As for his status as a defendant facing up to 35 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million for using M.I.T.’s computers to gain illegal access to millions of scholarly papers kept by Jstor, a subscription-only service for distributing scientific and literary journals, I refer you to three important writings from others.
The most important article came from Alex Stamos, CTO of Artemis and an expert witness on Swartz's side of US vs Swartz; engaged by his attorneys last year to help prepare a defense for his April trial. In 'The truth about Aaron Swatz's 'crime,' Stamos writes, among other things:
I know a criminal hack when I see it, and Aaron’s downloading of journal articles from an unlocked closet is not an offense worth 35 years in jail. I cannot speak as to all of the problems that contributed to Aaron’s death, but I do strongly believe that he did not deserve the treatment he received while he was alive.
Another must-read comes from American academic and political activist Lawrence Lessig. In a post called "Prosecutor as bully," he wrote about the extreme, over-the-top nature of the prosecution against Swartz. In one passage he wrote:
If what the government alleged was true -- and I say “if” because I am not revealing what Aaron said to me then -- then what he did was wrong. And if not legally wrong, then at least morally wrong. 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.
But, he continued:
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” — 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.
Finally, for those who believe MIT owns some of the shame in this case, I refer you to a story in TIME by Sam Gustin called "Aaron Swartz’s Suicide Prompts MIT Soul Searching." The article suggests MIT officials are thinking seriously about claims it didn't do enough to keep this case from swelling to ridiculous proportions:
MIT, one of the nation’s most prominent and respected universities, has come under criticism for its handling of the Swartz affair. In July 2011, JSTOR said it would drop any civil claims against Swartz. According to Lawrence Lessig, who runs Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, where Swartz was a fellow in 2011, MIT fell short by not following JSTOR’s lead.
These articles will hopefully give you a better handle on the legal grey matter that ended in tragedy.