Subjective Justice: The tale of Aaron Swartz

Originally published in the January 2013 issue of The Tower_, the official newspaper of The Bishop’s School._

A lifetime of creativity, innovation, and passion began with Aaron Swartz’s birth in November 1986. But this was abruptly cut short 26 years later, when US attorneys’ hounding of a bright young man for what was essentially trespassing pushed him to suicide.

The epitome of the 21st century prodigy, Swartz came up at the age of 13 with the idea that Jimmy Wales later developed into Wikipedia. The next year, he coauthored the RSS standard, used today in RSS feeds, real-time documents which present blog content in a standard format for applications like Google Reader to access.

Then Swartz cofounded Reddit, a massive online news community. As an advocate for civic liberties and openness, he started DemandProgress, a group instrumental to the fight against the SOPA and PIPA online censorship bills. And he confronted PACER, the documentation system the United States legal system uses to make court proceedings available online at a fee.

Aiming to make these public domain documents available to all at zero cost, Swartz created a browser extension named RECAP that allowed PACER users to upload accessed documents to the Internet Archive Web site. His creativity in challenging restrictions on public information earned him many powerful enemies among the defenders of the status quo. But most daring of all was his final stunt — downloading 4 million JSTOR documents from an unlocked closet at MIT — and the enemies that action yielded.

Aaron Swartz

To understand how JSTOR works, imagine you are a scientific researcher. You apply for and receive grants from government agencies including the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, both funded by taxpayer money. Your university collects around half of your grant money as overhead, which is then used to fund the administration, maintain buildings and other infrastructure — and also to purchase subscriptions to electronic publications.

One such digital source of science articles is JSTOR, which makes many publications available online and charges universities around $50,000 a year for access. You receive the remaining funds, do research, and then present the results as a research paper. In order to publish, though, you often have to pay the publisher a fee of several thousand dollars, again coming from that grant money.

Next, the magazine collects this money and asks fellow researchers to review your submission pro-bono. If all goes well, you get published — but your university is then told that to see your work, they must purchase a subscription to the magazine in which you had just paid to be published.

Such is the predicament of the academic, who is a creator earning little financial benefit. Meanwhile, taxpayers pay for science thrice: first they fund the research, then they pay publishing fees, and finally they buy back the final product from publishers in the form of restricted online subscriptions. But sharing information openly is the foundation of science and of innovation. That value stems from our culture’s early days, when Jefferson claimed, “He who receives an idea from me receives [it] without lessening [me], as he who lights his [candle] at mine receives light without darkening me.” Lighting a second candle means the amount of light has doubled; when research papers, data, and ideas are available to more people, innovating is easier.

Swartz simply wanted to allow open access to these papers written by public employees, with public money, and potentially benefitting wide groups of researchers ultimately leading to a faster pace of innovations. He wanted to bring the candle holders together and spread knowledge by doubling the light.

The range of judicial responses to crime

Ideally, our legal system should enable innovation, not prevent the sharing of ideas. JSTOR accepted this reasoning: the company peacefully asked Swartz to return the hard drives containing the downloaded data and modified their system to prevent future bulk downloading. But MIT called in federal investigators and wouldn’t drop the case, even after JSTOR reached its resolution with Swartz. Soon, a grand jury indicted Swartz with 13 felonies. At the time of his death, he faced 35 years in prison and over $1 million in fines — all for downloading articles. Compare that to armed bank robbery, a graver crime which carries a maximum term of 25 years. Attempting to spread knowledge should neither be met with a higher prison sentence, nor should it be considered a crime at all.

Were any bankers hounded with threats of long prison sentences to the brink of suicide during the financial crisis? Arguably, their crimes affected far more people than did Swartz’s trespassing in an unlocked closet at MIT. But U.S. attorneys chose not to pursue them with the law; only Swartz faced a de-facto witch trial.

The difference is that bankers have good lawyers, and it’s easy to defeat defenseless prodigies. Susie Bright, who has served as expert witness for the defense in several obscenity trials, explains in her blog post entitled “I Have Something to Say about Aaron Swartz’s Suicide and the Special Way the US Justice Dept Hounds People to Death”:

[When] the Defense team showed me all their files… I dropped their papers to the floor halfway through my review: “What are we talking about here? This defendant is developmentally disabled…” The Justice Department was bagging obscenity law trophies by going after the poor, the suicidal, the insane, the cognitively impaired— because that’s the way they rack up numbers and status. That’s the way they fuel their careers at the Justice Department— not by taking on constitutional issues, or injustice, or fat cats who believe they’re above the law.

Here, Swartz was the low-hanging fruit. He had published multiple blog posts about suffering from depression. When the US attorneys hit him with enough felony counts for doing something that shouldn’t be a crime, something snapped. This genius did not just commit suicide; he took his own life after facing unwarranted, excessive legal threats for doing what he believed to be the right thing to do.

That day, we lost a man devoted to his ideals of making information free and open for the world. And once again, our legal system showed how effective it is in heartlessly protecting the status quo against easy targets, killing innovation and progress. Be it in patent law or overzealous pursuits of petty criminals, legal power is ruled by money and fear, not by intellect or morality. Aaron Swartz, among others, had the potential to change this world in meaningful ways – and did, even in a short life, through Wikipedia, RSS, Reddit, DemandProgress, and RECAP — but we took his possibilities, his freedom, and his life away.

Until we reform our justice system to support fairness and openness over brutality and greed, our society will continue picking on those who try to fix it.