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Did Federal Prosecutors Bully Reddit’s 26-Year Old Cofounder To Death?

by David Badash on January 12, 2013

in News

Post image for Did Federal Prosecutors Bully Reddit’s 26-Year Old Cofounder To Death?

Aaron Swartz was found hanging by a rope Saturday, having committed suicide at the young age of 26. Swartz was brilliant — called a “boy genius” by none other than Lawrence Lessig — and was considered a co-founder of the wildly popular Internet social media sharing website Reddit. He also helped create RSS — which is used by almost every news organization and blog in the world — helped launch Creative Commons, and founded Demand Progress, an organization that rallied over one million people to SOPA and PIPA, the Internet regulation bills that ultimately, fortunately failed.

All too often we learn about amazing people only in the wake of their death. Aaron Swartz was one of those people you wish you had known about when he was alive, instead of when he committed suicide, after an insane federal government prosecution that went beyond overzealous and deep into zealotry. (More on that in a moment.)

Also unbeknown to many, Aaron Swartz was bisexual — and would likely be angered to be classified as bisexual, or in any manner. In 2009, Swartz wrote a blog entry titled, “Why I Am Not Gay,” that concluded:

People shouldn’t be forced to categorize themselves as “gay,” “straight,” or “bi.” People are just people. Maybe you’re mostly attracted to men. Maybe you’re mostly attracted to women. Maybe you’re attracted to everyone. These are historical claims — not future predictions. If we truly want to expand the scope of human freedom, we should encourage people to date who they want; not just provide more categorical boxes for them to slot themselves into. A man who has mostly dated men should be just as welcome to date women as a woman who’s mostly dated men.

So that’s why I’m not gay. I hook up with people. I enjoy it. Sometimes they’re men, sometimes they’re women. I don’t see why it needs to be any more complicated than that.

In a perfect world, I would agree. And I hope someday, this will be how we relate to one another. But, in the highly polarized, divided world in which we live, labels are what we have, and have to use — at least for now.

Who cares if Aaron Swartz was gay, straight, or bi? Well, the kids who are gay or bi — or perceived to be — and get bullied, beaten, ostracized, attacked, and humiliated because of how they’re perceived. And they need hope, they need to know that gay and bi people can make amazing contributions to the world, like Aaron Swartz did.

Meanwhile, back to the federal government’s zealotry, bullying, prosecution. Let’s let a few folks, some, like Lessig and Doctorow, who actually knew Swartz well, tell the story.

The inimitable Cory Doctorow wrote a long piece at Boing Boing in memory of his “friend Aaron Swartz,” that notes:

I met Aaron when he was 14 or 15. He was working on XML stuff (he co-wrote the RSS specification when he was 14) and came to San Francisco often, and would stay with Lisa Rein, a friend of mine who was also an XML person and who took care of him and assured his parents he had adult supervision. In so many ways, he was an adult, even then, with a kind of intense, fast intellect that really made me feel like he was part and parcel of the Internet society, like he belonged in the place where your thoughts are what matter, and not who you are or how old you are.

I highly suggest you read it.

“In 2011, Aaron used the MIT campus network to download millions of journal articles from the JSTOR database, allegedly changing his laptop’s IP and MAC addresses when necessary to get around blocks put in place by JSTOR and MIT and sneaking into a closet to get a faster connection to the MIT network,” Peter Eckersley at the Electronic Frontier Foundation writes:

For this purported crime, Aaron was facing criminal charges with penalties up to thirty-five years in prison, most seriously for “unauthorized access” to computers under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

If we believe the prosecutor’s allegations against him, Aaron had hoped to liberate the millions of scientific and scholarly articles he had downloaded from JSTOR, releasing them so that anyone could read them, or analyze them as a single giant dataset, something Aaron had done before. While his methods were provocative, the goal that Aaron died fighting for — freeing the publicly-funded scientific literature from a publishing system that makes it inaccessible to most of those who paid for it — is one that we should all support.

Moreover, the situation Aaron found himself in highlights the injustice of U.S. computer crime laws, and particularly their punishment regimes. 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. Because he used a computer, he instead faced long-term incarceration. This is a disparity that EFF has fought against for years. Yesterday, it had tragic consequences. Lawrence Lessig has called for this tragedy to be a basis for reform of computer crime laws, and the overzealous prosecutors who use them. We agree.

In “Prosecutor as bully,” the esteemed Lawrence Lessig notes that “all this shows is that if the government proved its case, some punishment was appropriate. So what was that appropriate punishment? Was Aaron a terrorist? Or a cracker trying to profit from stolen goods? Or was this something completely different?,” Lessig asks, and explains:

Early on, and to its great credit, JSTOR figured “appropriate” out: They declined to pursue their own action against Aaron, and they asked the government to drop its. MIT, 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.

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” — 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.

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. 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.

For remember, 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.”

In that world, the question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a “felon.” For in the 18 months of negotiations, that was what he was not willing to accept, and so that was the reason he was facing a million dollar trial in April — his wealth bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge. And so as wrong and misguided and fucking sad as this is, I get how the prospect of this fight, defenseless, made it make sense to this brilliant but troubled boy to end it.

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.

Zach Carter, Ryan Grimm, and Ryan J. Reilly wrote an exceptionally good piece, “Aaron Swartz, Internet Pioneer, Found Dead Amid Prosecutor ‘Bullying’ In Unconventional Case,” at the Huffington Post:

Open democracy advocate and internet pioneer Aaron Swartz was found dead Friday in an apparent suicide, flooding the digital spectrum with an outpouring of grief. He was 26 years old.

Swartz spent the last two years fighting federal hacking charges. In July 2011, prosecutor Scott Garland working under U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, a politician with her eye on the governor’s mansion, charged Swartz with four counts of felony misconduct — charges that were deemed outrageous by internet experts who understood the case, and wholly unnecessary by the parties Swartz was accused of wronging.

Swartz repeatedly sought to reduce the charges to a level below felony status, but prosecutors pressed on, adding additional charges so that by September 2012 Swartz faced 13 felony counts and up to half a century in prison.

Late on Saturday, Swartz’s family issued a statement mourning the loss of their loved one’s “curiosity, creativity” and “commitment to social justice.” They also put some of the blame for Swartz’s death on federal prosecutors.

“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy,” the statement reads. “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 MIT contributed to his death. The US 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.”

Swartz’s friend Henry Farrell, a political scientist at George Washington University, also pointed at the DOJ. “His last two years were hard, thanks to the U.S. Department of Justice, which engaged in gross prosecutorial overreach on the basis of stretched interpretations of the law,” he told HuffPost. “They sought felony convictions with decades of prison time for actions which, if they were illegal at all, were at most misdemeanors. Aaron struggled sometimes with depression, but it would have been hard not to be depressed in his circumstances. As Larry Lessig has rightly said, this should be a cause for great shame and anger.”

JSTOR issued a statement late on Saturday expressing regret at Swartz’s passing, criticizing his prosecution.

“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,” the statement reads. “At the same time, as one of the largest archives of scholarly literature in the world, we must be careful stewards of the information entrusted to us by the owners and creators of that content. To that end, Aaron returned the data he had in his possession and JSTOR settled any civil claims we might have had against him in June 2011.”

All 13 counts against Swartz rest on the idea that he stole or damaged JSTOR and MIT property.

The final count alleges that Swartz caused “reckless damage” to computer systems owned by JSTOR and MIT. While both JSTOR and MIT suffered interrupted service to JSTOR’s archive as a result of Swartz’s downloads, there was no permanent technical dysfunction.

The New York Times also has an extensive look at Swartz’s life.

“Aaron is survived by his parents Robert and Susan Swartz, his younger brothers Noah and Ben, and his partner Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman,” notes the “Official Statement from the family and partner of Aaron 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.

Aaron’s insatiable curiosity, creativity, and brilliance; his reflexive empathy and capacity for selfless, boundless love; his refusal to accept injustice as inevitable—these gifts made the world, and our lives, far brighter. We’re grateful for our time with him, to those who loved him and stood with him, and to all of those who continue his work for a better world.

Aaron’s commitment to social justice was profound, and defined his life. He was instrumental to the defeat of an Internet censorship bill; he fought for a more democratic, open, and accountable political system; and he helped to create, build, and preserve a dizzying range of scholarly projects that extended the scope and accessibility of human knowledge. He used his prodigious skills as a programmer and technologist not to enrich himself but to make the Internet and the world a fairer, better place. His deeply humane writing touched minds and hearts across generations and continents. He earned the friendship of thousands and the respect and support of millions more.

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 MIT contributed to his death. The US 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, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.

Today, we grieve for the extraordinary and irreplaceable man that we have lost.

We at The New Civil Rights Movement grieve too. Our thoughts are with the world, because Aaron and his work has helped everyone in it.

Image: Aaron Swartz at a Boston Wiki Meetup 2009, via Wikimedia Commons, by Sage Ross

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thomsense January 13, 2013 at 11:06 am

"U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, a politician with her eye on the governor’s mansion…" Do you think she'll have a chance at it, now that instead of getting a "high profile conviction", she's known as the perpetrator of a bullycide? She's going down.

Huntercgo January 13, 2013 at 5:18 pm

Scott Garland should be out pounding the pavement — although he might want to edit his resume.

MAD JEWESS January 13, 2013 at 6:16 pm

This is TIN FOIL hat material, you act like this is some conspiracy…

colonelkira January 13, 2013 at 8:00 pm

Once again we are subjected to opinionated drivel that is passed off as journalism……we do not HAVE to use anything.

dakotahgeo January 14, 2013 at 10:18 am

Our government (USA) has tortured, exterminated, killed many innocent people, JFK and Aaron Swartz not withstanding. This is somehow "new" news?? Ummm Ummm!!!

drjilliantweiss January 14, 2013 at 12:54 pm

It's worth reading Prof. Abbe Smith's article on the subject of the prosecutorial mindset. Here's "Can You Be A Good Person and a Good Prosecutor" She also wrote "Are Prosecutors Born or Made" recently, but I don't have a link for that.

Tilghman Lesher January 14, 2013 at 3:47 pm

The prosecutor was angling for a guilty plea, which is fairly common when it comes to any crime. Less than 1% of criminal defendants make it to trial. And a felony conviction is far from the end of your career. Just ask Randal Schwartz, another case of prosecutorial overreach, which made it to trial, Schwartz convicted (many say unjustly) of a felony, but his life was not over and is not over. He is now a well-respected author.

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