Anger grows over the death of Aaron Swartz
Internet prodigy hounded to suicide, claims family
Comment Aaron Swartz's death has sent shockwaves through the internet community, but among the mourning and tributes there's a growing undercurrent of anger that an enormously gifted young man may have been hounded to his death.
Swartz speaking against SOPA/PIPA last year
Swartz, who helped write the RSS standard at the age of 14 and co-founded Creative Commons, the Reddit online community and set up the Demand Progress group that did so much to stop SOPA/PIPA, was found hanging in his New York apartment by a friend on Friday. He was 26 and had been suffering from depression.
"Aaron's death is not simply a personal tragedy," his family said in a statement. "It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts US Attorney's office and at MIT contributed to his death."
Swartz was under indictment for claimed crimes that could have got him half a century behind bars and at least a million dollars in fines. He was being aggressively pursued by the US Department of Justice and was paying lawyer's fees even before the case was due to come to court in April.
Swartz was charged after he allegedly set up a custom Python script to download 4.8 million articles from JSTOR, an online archive of more than 1,000 academic journals via an MIT account. When his MAC address was blocked for slowing down the system he spoofed a new one and carried on downloading with a laptop stashed in a wiring closet, his indictment claims.
At the prices JSTOR was charging for the research papers, technically Swartz stole millions of dollars-worth of goods, although had he downloaded each one individually no laws would have been broken. JSTOR itself declined to press charges, indeed it opened its archives up for free on Wednesday in an unrelated move.
"The case is one that we ourselves had regretted being drawn into from the outset, since JSTOR's mission is to foster widespread access to the world's body of scholarly knowledge," said the academic publisher in a statement on Saturday. "Aaron returned the data he had in his possession and JSTOR settled any civil claims we might have had against him in June 2011."
But MIT and the US government weren't so forgiving. Swartz was initially charged with five cases of computer and wire fraud, but US federal attorneys Carmen Ortiz and Steve Heymann increased the number of charges to 13. With bail set at $100,000 and a court sentence due, the pressure on Swartz must have been intense.
Swartz wasn't exactly on the federal government Christmas card list anyway. The FBI investigated him in 2008 after he downloaded 20 per cent of the PACER US court document database and made it available online. No charges were pressed, but the case did him no favors in the eyes of the law and times are tough for those the government has deemed a "hacking threat."
Ever since WikiLeaks' release of State Department cables the government has been less tolerant of technology community shenanigans. Last year's Black Hat was full of stories of researchers getting hassled on their way to the show. International travellers with online "form" found attending the show hard: one guest shipped a laptop to the show because every time he flies he's pulled over for questioning and his computer is taken away for examination. Since he can’t tell what's been put on there by investigators the laptop is essentially useless until a full system wipe can be done, and even that's not 100 per cent certain to get rid of spyware.
One theory regarding Swartz suggests that authorities racked up the charges against him as a bargaining tactic, but also with the intention of converting him to become a mole for the authorities. As we saw in the case of Anon-turned-mole Sabu this can be highly effective.
Swartz isn't known to have participated in Anonymous-style activity. He did believe passionately in the need for open information. When he scraped the JSTOR system he wasn't looking for make a fast buck or damaging systems or denying access. JSTOR contained academic papers, for goodness' sake, hardly an area with a thriving black market. If he hadn't handed the papers back they would simply have appeared online for free, as the PACER documents did.
Swartz (15) and his friend Lawrence Lessig
Swartz wowed the online world with his perspicacity as a teenager, co-authoring the RSS 1.0 standard at an age when most teenagers are still trying to shave and was part of a group that helped set up the Creative Commons licensing scheme. His role in setting up Reddit was all about opening information up in an egalitarian way and his active campaigning against the idiocies of SOPA/PIPA sprang from the same intellectual source.
Those who knew him say the JSTOR case wasn't about theft but about fair use of information. The academics who wrote the papers on JSTOR weren't paid, nor were the editors and peer-reviewers. Yet researchers trying to use this data had to pay a publisher for the rights to it, and none of the funds made it to the information's creators.
"Aaron's act was undoubtedly political activism, and taking such an act in the physical world would, at most, have a meant he faced light penalties akin to trespassing as part of a political protest," said the EFF. "Because he used a computer, he instead faced long-term incarceration. This is a disparity that EFF has fought against for years."
Yet this argument only works with people who understand this way of thinking, which doesn’t include the federal authorities. They approached the case with little understanding and tried to steamroller Swartz into submission. As his family has pointed out, the consequences have been fatal.
"We live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White House — and where even those brought to 'justice' never even have to admit any wrongdoing, let alone be labeled 'felons,"' said friend and colleague Lawrence Lessig in his blog.
"In that world, the question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a 'felon.' Fifty years in jail, charges our government. Somehow, we need to get beyond the 'I’m right so I’m right to nuke you' ethics that dominates our time. That begins with one word: Shame. One word, and endless tears."
Lessig is not the only one who's fuming. The Twittersphere first recorded the shock and sadness of the internet community, but in the last day more and more angry voices are coming through and vowing: never again, this has to stop.
The US government is actively trying to get the computer industry onside to counter the hacking threat from other states and rogue actors and manage the online world. It appeals for help, yet treats those that could help it like this. It's a disconnect which will have to be resolved.
We've seen this before. Alan Turing, in many ways the father of the computing age and a man who had contributed more than most to the Allied victory in the Second World War, was to commit suicide less than a decade later after undergoing horrific "treatments" for his homosexuality.
Swartz had a once-in-a-generation mind, a rapacious intellect and was doing great things in trying to secure an open internet for us all. That he ended up hanging from the ceiling in a Brooklyn apartment at the age of 26 is a damning indictment of the system as it stands, and proof of the need for change. ®
Re: Comparing Turing to Swartz? Complete FAIL!
Andrew Moore - having been there, and come close enough on a couple of occasions, in hindsight, yes it is a selfish act. Took a full blown nervous breakdown, and two years of psychotherapy and having some good friends who were prepared to stick with me through some truly horrific times (hint - depressed and suicidal people are not generally sociable beyond a surface level) to get me clear of that state of mind and realise that.
I don't feel guilty about it - my head was a complete mess through stress, anxiety, and various other contributing factors in my life history that made me conclude that I was the biggest see-you-next-tuesday (phonetecise it yourself, I'd rather not risk this post getting moderated out due to swearing) walking on the earth, and that I deserved to die, and everyone would be better off without me. I don't see why I should feign guilt or shame because I was messed up in the head. Not much I could do about it at the time. Might as well say someone should feel guilty because they got cancer from doing, according to the tabloid press, anything. Stuff that.
Back to the depression itself and suicide specifically, unless you have been to that point, it's impossible to describe the utter, gut wrenching, mind numbing pain, fear, guilt and self-hatred that leads to that. It is about as close to a genuine living hell as an average person could get to. Even worse, quite often it can be wholly irrational. The closest I can describe is imagining yourself holding on the inside rim of a volcano, trying to scrabble up as the lava rises to meet you and you're being burned by the heat, and never being able to get a handhold. Get the concept of that sort of raw, rabid panic, the inevitability of it, that nothing you can do can stop what's about to happen.
I'm still generally depressed, and have major low points a couple of times a year (and I'm not talking about feeling a bit down in the dumps - I'm talking about days where I literally dread leaving the house, or even getting out of bed) but not as bad as I used to be. If you've never been to the stage where suicide genuinely seems like the only way out, I'll swear on my mothers grave that I genuinely hope you (the collective you, rather than you specifically) never do.
PS: If you have been affected by the contents of this post (sounds like an after school special, eh?) then dip into some psychology books - start with the soft-core 'dealing with anxiety/depression' types, and then move up to more scholarly stuff. Learning how your own brain works is A: fascinating and B: very useful in terms of devising coping strategies, recognising mental loops and culdesacs leading to circular paths of doom and how to break out of them, etc. I still refer back to them these days, very helpful stuff.
And if you are definitely feeling proper shitty, go see your GP. Sounds like a copout, but at least if you do something untoward, there's a record of it somewhere, and you're more likely to get some kind of treatment. NHS Psychology wards are surprisingly good, and no, they don't section you on sight, and if they do, it's almost certainly for a good reason. Because think about it, if you're so rubbish, why would they want you hanging around? (that's a little joke to my depressive cohorts, ho ho :-) )
PPS: Ironically, I work in customer service and am generally seen a terribly jovial chap. Fifteen years of depression makes you an amazing actor....
if only we could get rid of the psychopaths and control freaks in authority, what a world we could build.
Comparing Turing to Swartz? Complete FAIL!
In Turing's case, he was a brilliant man that served his country, made massive advances in computing, yet was punished for what was then illegal homosexual activities. I fully support the idea of a posthumous pardon for Turing and think he should be awarded for his work. I'm sorry, but Swartz does not compare, if only because he was not persecuted for his sexual activities (if anything he seems to have been bi-confused). Even his work on RSS was based on that of others, particularly Apple and Netscape, IIRC, and in no way compare to Turing's achievements. Schwartz gets brownie points with the LOIC fodder for claiming to have killed SOPA - big deal. Again, not his work alone. This drive to venerate him and at the same time "punish those responsible" for his committing suicide is missing the glaringly obvious - Swartz had been depressed for a long time and had talked of suicide long, long before the JSTOR incident.
I have known people that have been extremely depressed to the point of suicide, and it does not have to be something major that eventually triggers the act. A very old friend that had lived with depression for over twenty years one day went upstairs and hung himself, having accidentally broken a family heirloom. For him it was the last straw of guilt, having beaten himelf up for years thinking what a burden he had become to his family, that finally broke the camel's back. Aaron Swartz could have gone to trial, won, and still hung himself afterwards. His family will want to blame someone, it is only natural to do so as if you can't blame an outsider then the guilt will eat at you, but at some point they're going to have to face the fact that Aaron Swartz killed Aaron Swartz because Aaron Swartz decided he did not want to go on living.
Let the down votes roll in, those without experience of friends or family going through depression or suicide will shriek as they are told to.