Potentially facing over 30 years, Internet activist commits suicide.
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January 14th, 2013 (2:10 AM).
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Aaron Swartz committed suicide Friday in New York. He was 26 years old.
When he was 14 years old, Aaron helped develop the RSS standard; he went on to found Infogami, which became part of Reddit. But more than anything Aaron was a coder with a conscience: a tireless and talented hacker who poured his energy into issues like network neutrality, copyright reform and information freedom. Among countless causes, he worked with Larry Lessig at the launch of the Creative Commons, architected the Internet Archive’s free public catalog of books, OpenLibrary.org, and in 2010 founded Demand Progress, a non-profit group that helped drive successful grassroots opposition to SOPA last year.
“Aaron was steadfast in his dedication to building a better and open world,” writes Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle. “He is among the best spirits of the Internet generation. I am crushed by his loss, but will continue to be enlightened by his work and dedication.”
In 2006 Aaron was part of a small team that sold Reddit to Condé Nast , Wired’s parent company. For a few months he worked in our office here in San Francisco. I knew Aaron then and since, and I liked him a lot — honestly, I loved him. He was funny, smart, sweet and selfless. In the vanishingly small community of socially and politically active coders, Aaron stood out not just for his talent and passion, but for floating above infighting and reputational cannibalism. His death is a tragedy.
I don’t know why he killed himself, but Aaron has written openly about suffering from depression. It couldn’t have helped that he faced a looming federal criminal trial in Boston on hacking and fraud charges, over a headstrong stunt in which he 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 an Acer 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.
The JSTOR hack was not Aaron’s first experiment in liberating costly public documents. In 2008, the federal court system briefly allowed free access to its court records system, Pacer, which normally charged the public eight cents per page. The free access was only available from computers at 17 libraries across the country, so Aaron went to one of them and installed a small PERL script he had written that cycled sequentially through case numbers, requesting a new document from Pacer every three seconds, and uploading it to the cloud. Aaron pulled nearly 20 million pages of public court documents, which are now available for free on the Internet Archive.
The FBI investigated that hack, but in the end no charges were filed. Aaron wasn’t so lucky with the JSTOR matter. 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.
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,” Lessig writes. “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.”
The long and the short of it is that Aaron Swartz was on trial for the theft and intent of public distribution of academic documents from JSTOR via the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's subscription to their database. Although his trial never completed, he was potentially faced with over 30 years in prison, and committed suicide before the sentence was made. Over the course of his life he was heavily involved with the internet, having a great part in the development of reddit as well as campaigning heavily against SOPA and other internet censorship bills. He also co-authored RSS at the age of 14. He had apparently struggled with depression for much of his life.
What do you think of this whole thing? How far, if at all, was the legal action taken against Aaron responsible for his death? Was it fair to take legal action against him in the first place? As for the sentence, although this particular article does not give it precisely, I've seen it to be 35 years and $1 million worth of fines. Is this fair? Should the situation have been different because of the nature of the content which he was involved with (i.e. academic papers as opposed to music, films, etc.)? Discuss.
Also previously discussions about people who committed suicide have got really nasty so please try and keep it under control this time.
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