Aaron H. Swartz was an American coder, hacker, and internet activist. His father, Robert Swartz, had developed one of the first IBM operating systems, and Swartz junior seemed to follow his father’s footsteps, even if in a rather new environment and with a distinct civic sense of mission.
What got him into conflict with the judicial system, after some earlier and less significant jostles, was breaking into M.I.T. computer networks in 2010 and 2011, to access JSTOR and to download documents from there. It was apparently meant to be a demonstration, to underline his case that documents like JSTOR’s should be freely available. It had long been argued that such documents should be free because they are produced at public expense, writes the New York Times. The NYT has a detailed account of Swartz’ JSTOR activity. The indictment says that JSTOR’s servers were brought down by his action on several occasions, Wired wrote in September 2012.
It’s apparently a Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) which was applied by federal prosecutors. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in limiting reach of the CFAA, said that violations of employee contract agreements and websites’ terms of service – crucial in Swartz’ case, apparently, at least if up to the prosecutors – were better left to civil lawsuits, also according to Wired. But this ruling wasn’t binding for Massachusetts, and the prosecutors insisted that their charges against Swartz should go on. The maximum penalty – potentially – could have amounted to 35 years in prison, and a million USD penalty. The chief prosecutor in charge was Steve Heymann, who had previously brought hacker Albert Gonzales into jail with a 20-year term.
One of the underlying arguments in Swartz’ conflict with the judicial system was about what internet content should be freely available. Another was about what constitutes a violation of terms and conditions (although this may rather be a judicial technicalty than part of the actual conflict). Apparently, the federal prosecutors could have dropped their charges, had they wanted to. German newsmagazine Der Spiegel wonders if the prosecutors were indirectly targeting Bradley Manning, and Wikileaks, and if that would explain their determination to see the case through.
Aaron Swartz hanged himself on Friday, in his Brooklyn apartment.
Court proceedings had been scheduled to begin on April 1 this year.
Swartz reportedly had a history of depression. But in an online statement released on Saturday, his family and his partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, wrote that decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death:
Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.
Swartz’ ideology possibly seemed extreme, MIT Technology Review wrote in February 2012. The Review wrote that in September 2010, while siphoning the JSTOR database, Swartz was also circulating the first online petition to raise awareness of a controversial anti-piracy law. At the time, Swartz was putting together a website, as he said in an interview with the MIT Review, which ended up becoming Demand Progress.
Aaron Swartz’ funeral will be held on Tuesday, January 15.
» what brought him here, Lessig Blog, v2, January 12, 2013