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Greenwald writes: "Aaron Swartz, the computer programmer and internet freedom activist, committed suicide on Friday in New York at the age of 26."

The internet activist Aaron Swartz, seen here in Jan. 2009, has died at the age of 26. (photo: Michael Francis Mcelroy/AP)
The internet activist Aaron Swartz, seen here in Jan. 2009, has died at the age of 26. (photo: Michael Francis Mcelroy/AP)

The Inspiring Heroism of Aaron Swartz

By Glenn Greenwald, Guardian UK

13 January 13


aron Swartz, the computer programmer and internet freedom activist, committed suicide on Friday in New York at the age of 26. As the incredibly moving remembrances from his friends such as Cory Doctorow and Larry Lessig attest, he was unquestionably brilliant but also - like most everyone - a complex human being plagued by demons and flaws. For many reasons, I don't believe in whitewashing someone's life or beatifying them upon death. But, to me, much of Swartz's tragically short life was filled with acts that are genuinely and, in the most literal and noble sense, heroic. I think that's really worth thinking about today.

At the age of 14, Swartz played a key role in developing the RSS software that is still widely used to enable people to manage what they read on the internet. As a teenager, he also played a vital role in the creation of Reddit, the wildly popular social networking news site. When Conde Nast purchased Reddit, Swartz received a substantial sum of money at a very young age. He became something of a legend in the internet and programming world before he was 18. His path to internet mogul status and the great riches it entails was clear, easy and virtually guaranteed: a path which so many other young internet entrepreneurs have found irresistible, monomaniacally devoting themselves to making more and more money long after they have more than they could ever hope to spend.

But rather obviously, Swartz had little interest in devoting his life to his own material enrichment, despite how easy it would have been for him. As Lessig wrote: "Aaron had literally done nothing in his life 'to make money' . . . Aaron was always and only working for (at least his conception of) the public good."

Specifically, he committed himself to the causes in which he so passionately believed: internet freedom, civil liberties, making information and knowledge as available as possible. Here he is in his May, 2012 keynote address at the Freedom To Connect conference discussing the role he played in stopping SOPA, the movie-industry-demanded legislation that would have vested the government with dangerous censorship powers over the internet.

Critically, Swartz didn't commit himself to these causes merely by talking about them or advocating for them. He repeatedly sacrificed his own interests, even his liberty, in order to defend these values and challenge and subvert the most powerful factions that were their enemies. That's what makes him, in my view, so consummately heroic.

In 2008, Swartz targeted Pacer, the online service that provides access to court documents for a per-page fee. What offended Swartz and others was that people were forced to pay for access to public court documents that were created at public expense. Along with a friend, Swartz created a program to download millions of those documents and then, as Doctorow wrote, "spent a small fortune fetching a titanic amount of data and putting it into the public domain." For that act of civil disobedience, he was investigated and harassed by the FBI, but never charged.

But in July 2011, Swartz was arrested for allegedly targeting JSTOR, the online publishing company that digitizes and distributes scholarly articles written by academics and then sells them, often at a high price, to subscribers. As Maria Bustillos detailed, none of the money goes to the actual writers (usually professors) who wrote the scholarly articles - they are usually not paid for writing them - but instead goes to the publishers.

This system offended Swartz (and many other free-data activists) for two reasons: it charged large fees for access to these articles but did not compensate the authors, and worse, it ensured that huge numbers of people are denied access to the scholarship produced by America's colleges and universities. The indictment filed against Swartz alleged that he used his access as a Harvard fellow to the JSTOR system to download millions of articles with the intent to distribute them online for free; when he was detected and his access was cut off, the indictment claims he then trespassed into an MIT computer-wiring closet in order to physically download the data directly onto his laptop.

Swartz never distributed any of these downloaded articles. He never intended to profit even a single penny from anything he did, and never did profit in any way. He had every right to download the articles as an authorized JSTOR user; at worst, he intended to violate the company's "terms of service" by making the articles available to the public. Once arrested, he returned all copies of everything he downloaded and vowed not to use them. JSTOR told federal prosecutors that it had no intent to see him prosecuted, though MIT remained ambiguous about its wishes.

But federal prosecutors ignored the wishes of the alleged "victims". Led by a federal prosecutor in Boston notorious for her overzealous prosecutions, the DOJ threw the book at him, charging Swartz with multiple felonies which carried a total sentence of several decades in prison and $1 million in fines.

Swartz's trial on these criminal charges was scheduled to begin in two months. He adamantly refused to plead guilty to a felony because he did not want to spend the rest of his life as a convicted felon with all the stigma and rights-denials that entails. The criminal proceedings, as Lessig put it, already put him in a predicament where "his wealth [was] 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."

To say that the DOJ's treatment of Swartz was excessive and vindictive is an extreme understatement. When I wrote about Swartz's plight last August, I wrote that he was "being prosecuted by the DOJ with obscene over-zealousness". Timothy Lee wrote the definitive article in 2011 explaining why, even if all the allegations in the indictment are true, the only real crime committed by Swartz was basic trespassing, for which people are punished, at most, with 30 days in jail and a $100 fine, about which Lee wrote: "That seems about right: if he's going to serve prison time, it should be measured in days rather than years."

Nobody knows for sure why federal prosecutors decided to pursue Swartz so vindictively, as though he had committed some sort of major crime that deserved many years in prison and financial ruin. Some theorized that the DOJ hated him for his serial activism and civil disobedience. Others speculated that, as Doctorow put it, "the feds were chasing down all the Cambridge hackers who had any connection to Bradley Manning in the hopes of turning one of them."

I believe it has more to do with what I told the New York Times' Noam Cohen for an article he wrote on Swartz's case. Swartz's activism, I argued, was waged as part of one of the most vigorously contested battles - namely, the war over how the internet is used and who controls the information that flows on it - and that was his real crime in the eyes of the US government: challenging its authority and those of corporate factions to maintain a stranglehold on that information. In that above-referenced speech on SOPA, Swartz discussed the grave dangers to internet freedom and free expression and assembly posed by the government's efforts to control the internet with expansive interpretations of copyright law and other weapons to limit access to information.

That's a major part of why I consider him heroic. He wasn't merely sacrificing himself for a cause. It was a cause of supreme importance to people and movements around the world - internet freedom - and he did it by knowingly confronting the most powerful state and corporate factions because he concluded that was the only way to achieve these ends.

Suicide is an incredibly complicated phenomenon. I didn't know Swartz nearly well enough even to form an opinion about what drove him to do this; I had a handful of exchanges with him online in which we said nice things about each other's work and I truly admired him. I'm sure even his closest friends and family are struggling to understand exactly what caused him to defy his will to live by taking his own life.

But, despite his public and very sad writings about battling depression, it only stands to reason that a looming criminal trial that could send him to prison for decades played some role in this; even if it didn't, this persecution by the DOJ is an outrage and an offense against all things decent, for the reasons Lessig wrote today:

"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.

"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'."

Whatever else is true, Swartz was destroyed by a "justice" system that fully protects the most egregious criminals as long as they are members of or useful to the nation's most powerful factions, but punishes with incomparable mercilessness and harshness those who lack power and, most of all, those who challenge power.

Swartz knew all of this. But he forged ahead anyway. He could have easily opted for a life of great personal wealth, status, prestige and comfort. He chose instead to fight - selflessly, with conviction and purpose, and at great risk to himself - for noble causes to which he was passionately devoted. That, to me, isn't an example of heroism; it's the embodiment of it, its purest expression. It's the attribute our country has been most lacking.

I always found it genuinely inspiring to watch Swartz exude this courage and commitment at such a young age. His death had better prompt some serious examination of the DOJ's behavior - both in his case and its warped administration of justice generally. But his death will also hopefully strengthen the inspirational effects of thinking about and understanding the extraordinary acts he undertook in his short life.


From the official statement of Swartz's family:

"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 US 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."

This sort of unrestrained prosecutorial abuse is, unfortunately, far from uncommon. It usually destroys people without attention or notice. Let's hope - and work to ensure that - the attention generated by Swartz's case prompts some movement toward accountability and reform. your social media marketing partner


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+56 # Michael_K 2013-01-13 16:52
There needs to be a massive purge of the DoJ, starting with that pezzolino di merda, Eric Holder. Only THEN can this nation turn to the serious task of obtaining accountability and retribution for the actions of our traitorous elected and appointed officials.

BTW, it is indeed outrageous that in an astounding number of States, as well as in the Federal system, access to the Jurisprudence is denied on economic terms, just as it is outrageous that many States charge citizens for access to the Court System. One of the very few legitimate functions of government is seeing to it that the people's taxes provide - at the very least - a fully paid for venue in which to adjudicate disputes and determine what is or isn't criminal activity. The fact that people accept having to pay "court fees" means they are already a beaten down 3rd world population.
+7 # joedeane 2013-01-14 08:09
Indeed, not only a personal tragedy, but part of the tragedy of democracy's demise and the rise of the authoritarian corporate state under the rule of "the more effective evil (Glen Ford)", the "good guy" Barack Obama. Aren't you galad you voted for him?
-55 # Thaaff 2013-01-13 21:26
In my estimation, the first thing that needs to take place is resident Obumma's IMPEACHMENT; immediately after that, his entire pit-of-vipers Cabinet must be brought up on federal charges on multiple felonies including high treason, which is punishable by the death penalty! Not one member of Obumma's Cabinet should be exempted from this; these actions must be acted upon as quickly and decisively as possible....for the sake of this Republic, nothing less will do!!
+24 # BobbyLip 2013-01-14 00:23
Do you want to see his birth certificate, too?
+11 # BeaDeeBunker 2013-01-14 01:51
Is there a difference between a Christian Tea Party member and a non-Christian Tea Party member?
+1 # Michael_K 2013-01-14 14:22
Treason is a bipartisan activity, nowadays. It is enthusiasticall y engaged into by many senators and most representatives . It has been a hallmark of every administration since Clinton's second term (there was a lot of it before, but never quite so overt and brazen). But because Americans view politics as some sort of team sports, the mindless "fans" of the criminal you singled out have given you lots of "thumbs down", which would have been "thumbs up" if you'd singled out a member of the other team. Stoooopis is as stoooopid does!
+1 # Activista 2013-01-14 23:05
Carmen Milagros Ortiz (born 1956)[1] is the current United States Attorney for the District of Massachusetts. In 2009, she was nominated to the position by President Barack Obama ....
+30 # PABLO DIABLO 2013-01-14 00:22
I find "Thaaf"s statement outrageous in light of the extreme sadness of Aaron's death. He truly was courageous. Thaaf, crawl back under your rock.
+2 # Michael_K 2013-01-14 14:26
I find your knee-jerk outrage at the ultimate boss of the corrupt DoJ being fingered to be a nauseating form of sycophancy.

So now we're both outraged, hope you're satisfied.
+40 # cafetomo 2013-01-14 00:55
Another hounded and harried to their end by greed and indifference. Can you fault someone for their despair in believing it possible to participate in a society based on principles, and finding it so fundamentally based on greed? He acted on an innate and intuitive sense of what is right, despite what has arguably been declared lawful. The pre-disposed conviction of prosecutors made a misery of his life due solely to the latter, on the premise that they are indistinguishab le.
To some, maybe.

There are times when what has been made legal, fails to be right. This is one of them. To make a point of continuing to prevent the harm in SOPA, PIPA and other such pursuits in the profit of ignorance, is one of the better ways to vindicate his life and efforts.

We'll never know what has been lost to everyone, by his undeserved and untimely death. But being a visionary, he was on the right track, which is more than can be said of most.
+27 # twnzach 2013-01-14 01:37
I'm crying atm. Our justice system should not be doing this to non-violent people...crimin al or otherwise. It's utterly repulsive. I am becoming more ashamed of being an American with every new account of judicial imbalance. Shame on us.
+5 # RLF 2013-01-14 08:52
Banksters are nonviolent. There are worse things than an isolated act of violence and that would be f#*king an entire country. Holder and his corrupt minions prosecute no one meaningful to anyone for industry and who they want prosecuted. No laws for the 1%...they do whatever and are never prosecuted unless they trespass on their own class. That being said...all of you youngsters that believe everything like movies and music should be free are buttholes too. I've seen the ability of my musician friends to make a living go to total crap with the internet.
+3 # twnzach 2013-01-14 10:07
All the same, I don't think even banksters should be going to jail with extreme sentences. They should certainly be made examples of and shamed through the judicial system--this would allow for a change in the overall "culture" of how things operate--but 25 to life would be excessive. Save that for murderers, rapists, and such.

As for your comment about music, I know about that as well on a personal level because I too am a musician -- but be sure that when you talk about change you are careful about regulation that takes away from other basic freedoms of exchange.

+29 # Artemis 2013-01-14 02:45
Thank you for your compassionate words, your precision and your spirit, Glenn Greenwald. May Aaron Swartz be remembered and provide inspiration to those who stand up for all people against our shockingly amoral and vindictive governmental systems that hunt down and punish idealism and courage - the very things we are brought up to admire.
La lotta continua!
+19 # cordleycoit 2013-01-14 05:34
I would put his body at the feet of MIT as they play all sides of the street. The Justice Department gets a close second. They hound the creative community and many of us live in terror of a government gone wild. Government lawyers take advantage of the badge they carry to pull off gun running and dope smuggling while stifling and harassing the community of artists and science. If we speak out, we are doomed.If we are silent, we are doomed.
+3 # Nel 2013-01-14 07:00
Investigate. # 1-Was he given antidepesant, suicide inducing drugs?; #2-By who?; # 3- Records of "treatment"?
+1 # steve98052 2013-01-14 13:25
Antidepressants have side effects, which include the risk of suicidal thoughts if a patient's medications are changed abruptly. However, clinical depression is much more likely to result in suicide if it is not treated. Blaming life-saving medicine for a suicide is like blaming seat belts for a car crash.

You do a great disservice to people who can benefit from antidepressabts by blaming them for their failure to treat every patient with full success.

Sure, drug companies are villains, but many of their products are life-savers to people who need them.

Additionally, Aaron Swartz's family was supportive of him. Do you really mean to blame them for his suicide too?

He died because he suffered depression, which was aggravated by malicious prosecution.
+4 # Nel 2013-01-14 17:41
Be aware of the curious, investigate, as Aaron did.
+16 # hoodwinkednomore 2013-01-14 07:48
Aaron Swartz speaking in his own words today: Democracy Now, NYC. In Amherst, MA area: WMUA 91.1 FM, 8-9 am. WXOJ, 103.3 FM, 4 or 5 pm, on hour. (Monday)

Smart, articulate young man...much more noble than any number of current members of any American political party, congress, what-have-you
+7 # FatCharley 2013-01-14 08:44
Truth telling doesn't have an unblemished record over the millenia. The risks are great of punishment (Gallileo's insistence that the Earth moves around the sun rather than agreeing to the more conventional opposite of his time led to his death-by-fire. He kept reasserting this truth as the flames grew). It takes real heroes. The statement from the Swartz family is heartbreaking and reveals the mundane awfulness of purely bureaucratic responses to complex and non-lethal human actions. I will light a candle for Aaron Swartz in the prettiest church I know here in Zurich although I am Jewish, not Catholic. Oddly, Galileo might understand.
+10 # Trueblue Democrat 2013-01-14 08:59
I'm inclined to call Eric Holder, the US Attorney in Boston and the president or presidents who put them in office "whores." But this would be an insult to the self-respecting prostitutes who deliver the goods as advertised for the agreed upon price. Obama (and Bush before him) and their minions by their actions regularly repudiate such a way of doing business -- dealing fairly with their contractual partners, i.e., the American people.
+8 # Kootenay Coyote 2013-01-14 09:53
Free access to information goes back at least 11 centuries, to the early & enthusiastic, free exchange & copying of books in Mediaeval monasteries for the sake of more widely distributed knowledge. To see this established & noble tradition attacked by corrupted law for the sake of larcenous publishers who pay nothing to the authors involved (& I am one, who has not profited but nevertheless support free distribution) is to see not merely a vile attack on civilization but a vicious wounding of human aspiration.
-1 # hammermann 2013-01-14 10:31
I thought JSTOR was totally changed by previous pressure and dropped their fees 80% or something, and started comoensating authors much more
0 # James Marcus 2013-01-14 11:47
CIA 'Signature Suicide'. But they only do Obama's Bidding!

Impeach this Murderer. He Kills children everywhere, with impunity and 'justification' Impeach him. Fire his cabinet and PROSECUTE Them All!
+13 # jwb110 2013-01-14 12:15
My father worked for the FBI. If the FBI and the DOJ were involved I would question the entire idea Swartz actually commiting suicide.
+11 # fredboy 2013-01-14 14:27
Schwartz shall be on my very short list of lifetime heroes. I regard him as a brother, as we shared key beliefs focusing on information freedom.

Unfortunately, I am not surprised by the DOJ witchhunt. As a journalist I once caught a major bank switching stocks from one account to another after the stocks had been sold, taking the profit from the sale from an account that benefited the Shriners' Crippled Children's fund and shifting it to an account owned by physicians who had complained about weak portfolio performance. The statutes said it was a felony. When I wrote the story the federal authorities never charged one bank employee, but instead told me that if I read or had access to the "secret" bank examiners' report revealing the stock switch they would prosecute and imprison me!!!! So the bad guys go free, but the truth sharer is to be the target.

Champion freedom of information. And never, ever let up.
+6 # treadlightly 2013-01-14 14:34
Getting tired of having to process a new atrocity committed by the leaders of my country on a daily basis. Voted for Obama twice. Still waiting for the justice I had hoped he might bring. Was that a pin I heard dropping?
+1 # Michael_K 2013-01-15 13:43
Quoting treadlightly:
Getting tired of having to process a new atrocity committed by the leaders of my country on a daily basis. Voted for Obama twice. Still waiting for the justice I had hoped he might bring. Was that a pin I heard dropping?

Twice?! Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me! I s'pose you're unfamiliar with that saying?
+5 # Activista 2013-01-14 22:57
Aaron Swartz reminds me of another hero of mine (and believe me there are no many) - Second World War Enigma code cracker hailed gay martyr ... Mr Alan Turin committed suicide in 1954 .. aged 41 - genius that enabled Nazi defeat.
What a loss.
Our money society is OBSCENE ... and USA is going bankrupt (as Soviet Union did) because the INFORMATION is NOT free.
There is so much money in software - hope that the foundation is started to FREE INTERNET in Aaron Swartz name.

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