A very contrarian view of Aaron Swartz that will do me no favors.

Sorry for that.  But I read this New Yorker piece about Aaron Swartz (short version: was being prosecuted by the government for illegally downloading JSTOR archives; recently committed suicide), and this is the narrative that I take from it:

Once upon a time there was a very bright, but easily bored boy who spent his entire life not having to do anything that he didn’t want to do, and being encouraged in this by everybody that knew and loved him.  The boy became a man with no discipline and no unifying principle to his life; he made a lot of money, but did not know what to do with it; or, indeed, anything at all.  So he heedlessly did anything and everything that came to mind, with no thought to completion, or consequences.  Eventually the boy did something that was against the law; and then the government – who did not know and love him, and either did not realize that he was still a boy, or did not care – came down upon the man like a ton of bricks.  And eventually the boy decided that his life was not worth living, so he ended it.

As the above might suggest, I have a problem with people who commit acts of ‘civil disobedience,’ but don’t want to go to jail for doing it: it makes a mockery of the process.  But I don’t think that Swartz was really doing that: I think that he was… the above. He honestly never understood in his gut that actions sometimes have consequences, whether you want them or not.  This became a problem when he finally encountered a situation (the government enforcing absurd copyright laws) where the consequences could not be avoided, averted, or minimized.  And it turns out that Swartz was woefully (and tragically) unprepared for that eventuality.

And if you think that the above was callous, here’s the next part of it.  I have to say: if his family, friends and loved ones are thinking to themselves right now Oh, God, did we contribute to this? my response would be …Yeah, you probably did.  They didn’t cause his death: the responsibility for Aaron Swartz’s suicide ultimately is his, and there may have been physiological factors involved.  I want to make sure that the distinction is recognized.  But, again… actions have consequences; and if somebody is wondering whether their particular action had a particular consequence, perhaps they should at least address the possibility that they’re right to so wonder.

Moe Lane (crosspost)

PS: I am well aware that this post will generate a negative reaction.  I’m not here to tell people what I think that they want to hear.

PPS: Yes, modern copyright law is, again, absurd and does not take into account the realities of modern information technology. We need to fix that. We also need to rein in the government’s habit of using high-profile prosecutions as an alternative method of setting policy (and we need to do that in general, not just when it comes to digital copyright issues).

11 thoughts on “A very contrarian view of Aaron Swartz that will do me no favors.”

  1. Thing is, the consequences sure looked avoidable to me .. provided Aaron was willing to live out of the country for the rest of his days.
    I hear internet access in Sweden is quite good… not so sure about Belize.

    1. What is really funny to me is it is the Holder Justice Department that blew it all out of proportion led by an attention seeking Obama appointed prosecutor. The Mukasey Justice Department was ready to slap him on the wrist and let it go. It was Ortiz who wanted some cameras.

  2. Yeah, honestly when I keep hearing about how the government was going to try for 35 years if he went to trial (which he apparently could not afford) and so was offering him something like a year in jail as a plea bargain, all I can think is “This kid seriously thought that he’d never, ever, ever have to spend any time in jail for this stuff.”

    As Moe (and others) have pointed out: time in jail is the whole point of civil disobedience. You’re not supposed to just break the laws and then stick your tongue out and think things are going to get better–you actually need to spend some time suffering for the aforementioned absurd laws, which hopefully will get some attention brought to your plight, which will then make people want to change the absurd laws.

    But, really? He’s doing these things that he knows are federal offenses and can’t handle this plea offer? All I can think is that he (and his friends/family) somehow kid himself into thinking that the actual amount of time he’d spend in jail was 0, because I can’t see any plea bargain getting much smaller than this and still involving imprisonment.

  3. Moe, thanks for the article. This is something that needs to be discussed. One factual error in the article is that Aaron Swartz was never charged with violating any copyright law (because it is clear that he did not break any copyright law).

    Aaron may have been prepared to face justice for the crimes he committed – but the crimes he committed, if any, were not the crimes he was charged with. That is the point of all of this discussion: the charges were unreasonable by any standard (except maybe Holder’s standards, for what that is worth).

    He was charged with “wire fraud” (a trumped-up charge). He was charged with “recklessly damaging a protected computer” – but it is silly to think that he did or could have actually damaged any computer with his alleged “hacking.” He was charged with “unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer” – except that the computers weren’t protected and he was allowed (by virtue of an agreement with Harvard) to access MIT’s open network and unprotected computers to download an unlimited number of articles from JSTOR. He was charged with “computer fraud,” which like the “wire fraud” charge was something added on to increase the total penalty to 55 years after the initial charges amounting to 35 years. (As an electrical engineer, I can tell you that the alleged “hacking” wasn’t really malicious hacking at all, particularly considering it was the MIT campus.)

    Aaron may have committed trespass by putting his laptop in the unlocked MIT computer closet. When the state of Massachusetts looked into the crime, that’s what they saw and they didn’t even pursue those charges.

    It is unclear what Swartz was going to do with the articles. If he released them to the public, he may have only released those articles that were NOT under copyright – and he downloaded many uncopyrighted articles from JSTOR. In his “manifesto” he discussed releasing such articles when they were no longer under copyright. Yes, he mentions respecting copyright in parts of his manifesto! In other parts he is silent about copyright laws. He could have been downloading the articles (like he did with law review articles from law schools) for an academic study about the influence of money on authors without releasing the articles (and that law review study was published, by the way). Who knows? He could have intended to break copyright law by releasing articles under copyright.

    But it is clear that he was pursued as though he were a terrorist. Maybe it is because he was doing freedom of information requests about Wikileaks? – as one Congressmen has suggested. Maybe it was because he orchestrated the protests against SOPA (a hugely popular bipartisan bill)? Maybe it was because they didn’t like his manifesto, even though it did mention and respect copyright (but was silent in other places)? Was it to please political donors because the prosecutor has political ambitions? We don’t know the answer to these questions either.

    We can only guess as to the reason he was treated as though he was a terrorist, and we can only guess what Aaron was planning to do with the articles.

    I suggest reading stuff put together by the attorney who wrote “Three Felonies a Day” – how the Feds behave in a way to crush the accused in a way so that they don’t have a fair trial or a chance to defend themselves.

  4. Most people will agree that actions have consequences…for little people. Aaron Swartz failed to understand that he was little people. A harpy with a boner for self-promotion fell on him with the full force of “prosecutorial discretion.” Fine. Life’s a bitch then you die. He theoretically harmed someone, so no sense feigning sympathy for the weak among us. It’s too bad he didn’t make the retirement funds of thousands of grandma’s and grandpa’s disappear thru a pyramid scheme like Jon Corzine. Apparently stealing billions isn’t even frowned upon in the same jurisdiction that hounded a weak and immature man to death. Justice is just a blind bitch with a sword. Right?

      1. Hey, I guess so. Not sure why the offense, though. None was intended. Maybe I should have just said that I think abuse of prosecutorial discretion is at least as big a problem as an over-entitled kid downloading files illegally and left it at that. Mea culpa

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