Aaron Swartz was arrested in January 2011 for allegedly using a Python script running on a laptop hidden in a maintenance closet at MIT, to rapidly download 4.8 million academic research papers from the JSTOR database (JSTOR is a digital library of academic papers). Despite JSTOR dropping its case and Swartz having access rights to the database, he was later indicted on federal charges under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Faced with up to 35 years of jail time, a $1 million fine, and quickly-draining legal funds, Aaron committed suicide in his Brooklyn apartment on Friday, shortly after being denied further negotiation on his plea bargain by Assistant US Attorney Stephen Heymann. Swartz was 26 years old.
Copyright reformists are in an uproar. Swartz, who was an Internet activist in addition to programmer extraordinaire, believed that the research papers housed in JSTOR should be publicly available. His argument is hard to deny given that much of the research findings housed in JSTOR came from projects funded with public government grants and subsidies.
In a similar vein, Internet Activist are angry at the death of their fellow activist who they feel was unjustly pushed to suicide. As a result of the hack, Anonymous hit the MIT home page and left a political message of its own. The Verge explained the message:
“In stark red-on-black formatting, the message calls Aaron’s prosecution “a gross miscarriage of justice” that “highlights the injustice of U.S. computer crime laws, particularly their punishment regimes, and the highly-questionable justice of pre-trial bargaining.” The authors go on to demand the reform of copyright and intellectual property laws, and “a renewed and unwavering commitment to a free and unfettered internet.”
It is well known that Swartz and MIT had settled quickly after the incident. Upon his death, MIT issued their condolences (as did JSTOR) and noted that “Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT.” MIT president L. Rafael Reif said in MIT’s official statement:
“I have asked Professor Hal Abelson to lead a thorough analysis of MIT’s involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in fall 2010 up to the present. I have asked that this analysis describe the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took.”
The Swartz family blames the suicide on an overzealous Justice Department bent on bullying the public to make a point. Even after Swartz and MIT settled civilly, the Justice Department, using evidence obtained from MIT, issued a federal indictment of Swartz for wire fraud, computer fraud, and other charges. Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd wrote that “the reason [the US Attorney] threw the book at him wasn’t to teach him a lesson, but to make a point to the entire Cambridge hacker community that they were p0wned.” Swartz was due to stand trial in April 2013.
The Swartz family said:
“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. Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.”
The Justice Department, using their infinite supply of wisdom, dropped its charges against Internet activist Aaron Swartz on Monday (1/13/2013), citing Swartz’s death.
Here is the full statement by MIT president L. Rafael Reif, regarding the death of Aaron Swartz:
To the members of the MIT community:
Yesterday we received the shocking and terrible news that on Friday in New York, Aaron Swartz, a gifted young man well known and admired by many in the MIT community, took his own life. With this tragedy, his family and his friends suffered an inexpressible loss, and we offer our most profound condolences. Even for those of us who did not know Aaron, the trail of his brief life shines with his brilliant creativity and idealism.
Although Aaron had no formal affiliation with MIT, I am writing to you now because he was beloved by many members of our community and because MIT played a role in the legal struggles that began for him in 2011.
I want to express very clearly that I and all of us at MIT are extremely saddened by the death of this promising young man who touched the lives of so many. It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy.
I will not attempt to summarize here the complex events of the past two years. Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT. I have asked Professor Hal Abelson to lead a thorough analysis of MIT’s involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in fall 2010 up to the present. I have asked that this analysis describe the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took. I will share the report with the MIT community when I receive it.
I hope we will all reach out to those members of our community we know who may have been affected by Aaron’s death. As always, MIT Medical is available to provide expert counseling, but there is no substitute for personal understanding and support.
With sorrow and deep sympathy,
L. Rafael Reif