The death of Aaron Swartz

This is a letter from a friend, a computer person, about the death of Aaron Swartz -- a tragedy, though I don't know if "tragedy" is really the right word when someone is driven to suicide. -- D.B.

Hi Daniel,

I don't know how much you've heard about Aaron Swartz, the extraordinarily gifted and effective computer programmer and progressive activist who committed suicide last Friday.

Throughout the 18 months before he hanged himself Aaron had been dealing with the stress of an enormously complex and costly legal case. He faced Federal criminal charges that could have put him in prison for decades -- all stemming from a single incident in which he downloaded, using the computer network at MIT, an excessive number of publicly available academic papers.

Normally, here in the USA, these papers are accessed through schools and libraries that pay varying fees (for varying degrees of access) to the non-profit corporation JSTOR. Quite likely, Aaron hoped to make the JSTOR database of academic research (or a portion thereof) available worldwide to people and libraries that couldn't afford the JSTOR fees. In the end, though, the material downloaded was never distributed. It remained on Aaron's computer, causing no economic harm to JSTOR or anyone else. The worst that can be said of Aaron's act is that it temporarily slowed down the MIT computer network.

In any case, JSTOR reached an amicable settlement with Aaron and declined to bring any civil or criminal lawsuit against him. MIT, to its shame and regret, was more cooperative with the Federal prosecutors who sought to make a name for themselves and an example out of Aaron. In the aftermath of his death the MIT President sent out a university-wide email announcing the appointment of Hal Abelson (a highly respected professor there, who had worked with Aaron on the Creative Commons licensing project) to "lead a thorough analysis of MIT's involvement" in the years-long legal drama culminating in Aaron's death.

The Internet (at least the tech-aware and progressive parts of it) have been awash with grief. And, of course, flooded with discussion. I don't even know how to begin listing relevant links: there are so many level-headed, judicious people writing right now with anguish and outrage. (Today's Democracy Now has some useful links, as do many of the mainstream news and tech sites.)

Who and what (besides the usual forces of greed, ignorance, and political ambition that distort our legislative and criminal justice system) should take the blame for escalating a victimless incident (one that, arguably, wasn't even a crime) into a terrifying multi-count Federal case? One obvious candidate is Carmen Ortiz, the Federal prosecutor who used her discretionary powers to drive the case forward, split the alleged wrongdoing up into multiple counts for a maximal sentence, and raise the defendant's legal costs to a ruinous level.

One expression of the outrage generated by this case is a petition asking the White House to remove Carmen Ortiz from office. (She was appointed by Obama.)

To go to the petition, press here

I realize that some would consider petitioning the White House for anything a futile and misleading gesture. I also realize that Carmen Ortiz is hardly the only person to blame. At the very least, Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Heymann, working under her, shares responsibility for the grotesquely harsh prosecution of this case.

It saddens me, of course, to contemplate signing a petition for removal of a hardworking Federal prosecutor whose class background, gender, and ethnicity have helped diversify that profession. But a great wrong has been done, and there should be some public censure for the prosecutor most visibly and directly implicated in that wrong. Signing the petition won't bring back Aaron Swartz, but I do see some value in:

(1) forcing the administration to emit a public response (however mealy-mouthed) to the reasonable anger of citizens over a gross misuse of the criminal justice system,

(2) putting a possible damper on Ortiz's career and political ambitions and thereby injecting a dollop of caution into like-minded overzealous prosecutors of victimless Internet crime, and

(3) drawing public attention to a host of issues having to do with the free flow of news, conversation, research, and cultural products in the age of Internet connectivity. This free flow, so important for democracy and the flourishing of the arts and sciences, is at ongoing risk of being legislated and adjudicated away. Any politically supportable petition that helps shine a light on this situation seems to me a good thing.

So I signed yesterday. Whatever you think of this case and White House petitions, I wanted to share my thoughts. And, of course, I wouldn't be sorry if you signed too.

January 15, 2013

To go to the petition, press here