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January 12, 2013

Reactions to the Death of Internet Activist Aaron Swartz

Posted in: Cyberspace

Aaron Swartz (Photo by ragesoss)

There are multiple reactions and statements circulating on the death of Aaron Swartz, an Internet activist who committed suicide in New York yesterday. Many of them highlight the sheer injustice he was experiencing, as he was subjected to a vindictive government prosecution for “hacking” into a JSTOR database to free articles for people to read.

The reflections also show how Swartz inspired many through his spirit and passion for acting in ways that would make the world a better place.

First, here’s a statement from his family and a partner:

Our beloved brother, son, friend, and partner Aaron Swartz hanged himself on Friday in his Brooklyn apartment. We are in shock, and have not yet come to terms with his passing.

Aaron’s insatiable curiosity, creativity, and brilliance; his reflexive empathy and capacity for selfless, boundless love; his refusal to accept injustice as inevitable—these gifts made the world, and our lives, far brighter. We’re grateful for our time with him, to those who loved him and stood with him, and to all of those who continue his work for a better world.

Aaron’s commitment to social justice was profound, and defined his life. He was instrumental to the defeat of an Internet censorship bill; he fought for a more democratic, open, and accountable political system; and he helped to create, build, and preserve a dizzying range of scholarly projects that extended the scope and accessibility of human knowledge. He used his prodigious skills as a programmer and technologist not to enrich himself but to make the Internet and the world a fairer, better place. His deeply humane writing touched minds and hearts across generations and continents. He earned the friendship of thousands and the respect and support of millions more.

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 U.S. 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.

Today, we grieve for the extraordinary and irreplaceable man that we have lost.

Clearly, his family believes the prosecution was a main factor in his decision to kill himself.

JSTOR put out a statement:

We are deeply saddened to hear the news about Aaron Swartz. We extend our heartfelt condolences to Aaron’s family, friends, and everyone who loved, knew, and admired him. He was a truly gifted person who made important contributions to the development of the internet and the web from which we all benefit.

We have had inquiries about JSTOR’s view of this sad event given the charges against Aaron and the trial scheduled for April. The case is one that we ourselves had regretted being drawn into from the outset, since JSTOR’s mission is to foster widespread access to the world’s body of scholarly knowledge. At the same time, as one of the largest archives of scholarly literature in the world, we must be careful stewards of the information entrusted to us by the owners and creators of that content. To that end, Aaron returned the data he had in his possession and JSTOR settled any civil claims we might have had against him in June 2011.

This is the most vile aspect of all this. JSTOR had settled with Swartz and they were ready to move onward. It was the government that would not let parties put what Swartz did behind them.

Alex Stamos, who was going to testify as an expert witness during Swartz’s trial, detailed the nature of Swartz’s “crime” and wrote:

…Aaron Swartz was not the super hacker breathlessly described in the Government’s indictment and forensic reports, and his actions did not pose a real danger to JSTOR, MIT or the public. He was an intelligent young man who found a loophole that would allow him to download a lot of documents quickly. This loophole was created intentionally by MIT and JSTOR, and was codified contractually in the piles of paperwork turned over during discovery.

If I had taken the stand as planned and had been asked by the prosecutor whether Aaron’s actions were “wrong”, I would probably have replied that what Aaron did would better be described as “inconsiderate”. In the same way it is inconsiderate to write a check at the supermarket while a dozen people queue up behind you or to check out every book at the library needed for a History 101 paper. It is inconsiderate to download lots of files on shared wifi or to spider Wikipedia too quickly, but none of these actions should lead to a young person being hounded for years and haunted by the possibility of a 35 year sentence…

Rick Perlstein for The Nation, who knew him, penned a fine tribute:

…I remember always thinking that he always seemed too sensitive for this world we happen to live in, and I remember him working so mightily, so heroically, to try to bend the world into a place more hospitable to people like him, which also means hospitable to people like us. I like what the blogger Lambert Strether wrote on my Facebook page (in Aaron’s memory, friend me!): “Our society should be selecting for the Aaron Swartz’s of this world. Instead, generous and ethical behavior, especially when combined with technical brilliance, turns out to be maladaptive, indeed lethal. If Swartz had been Wall Street’s youngest investment banker, he would be alive today.”

 Lawrence Lessig in a post titled, “Prosecutor as Bully” described being Swartz’s lawyer and friend and passionately concluded:
…[T[he question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a “felon.” For in the 18 months of negotiations, that was what he was not willing to accept, and so that was the reason he was facing a million dollar trial in April — his wealth 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. And so as wrong and misguided and fucking sad as this is, I get how the prospect of this fight, defenseless, made it make sense to this brilliant but troubled boy to end it....

Cory Doctorow, who was friends with Swartz, movingly described him:

I met Aaron when he was 14 or 15. He was working on XML stuff (he co-wrote the RSS specification when he was 14) and came to San Francisco often, and would stay with Lisa Rein, a friend of mine who was also an XML person and who took care of him and assured his parents he had adult supervision. In so many ways, he was an adult, even then, with a kind of intense, fast intellect that really made me feel like he was part and parcel of the Internet society, like he belonged in the place where your thoughts are what matter, and not who you are or how old you are.

Doctorow explained Swartz had been dealing with depression. Sadly, he suggested, "I don't know for sure whether Aaron understood that any of us, any of his friends, would have taken a call from him at any hour of the day or night."

Quinn Norton profoundly detailed how she loved Aaron:

We used to have a fight about how much the internet would grieve if he died. I was right, but the last word you get in as the still living is a hollow thing, trailing off, as it does, into oblivion. I love Aaron. I loved Aaron. There are no words to can contain love, to cloth it in words is to kill it, to mummify it and hope that somewhere in the heart of a reader, they have the strength and the magic to resurrect it. I can only say I love him. That I will always love him, and that I known for years I would. Aaron was a boy, not big, who cast a shadow across the world. But for me, he will always be that person who made me love him. He was so frustrating, and we fought. But we fought like what we were: two difficult people who couldn’t escape loving each other.

The government investigation, which he was subjecteed, destroyed their love. Aaron wanted to get away from her. She waited for the day he would come back.

Jacob Appelbaum, Tor software developer, on Twitter:

One of the last times I saw [Aaron Swartz] in Boston, we were walking near MIT after his arrest. I look forward to the FBI FOIA about that walk. Neither of us could really talk freely about what was happening to us legally or illegally; the subtext and the result was clear enough. Medical privacy waivers with National Security exceptions do not make for a safe space to talk about the hell that is life under a boot. Ellsberg’s therapist had to be burglarized to violate his privacy and it was a travesty; now we institutionalize that violation in waivers.

The hell that rains down on your friends, your family and you work is unimaginable – the trick, if there is just one, is to be prepared. The problem is that nothing prepares one for what will come. The rest is a matter of good friendship willing to resist the State. The right to remain silent has been revoked; our friends and lovers forced to betray us, to betray even appearances of solidarity. The tactics of the State will take when it wants to crush you are endless, secret and literally many of us will die before truth comes out.

If you’re feeling depressed because of State-terrorist activity in your life, I encourage you to reach out to friends or even, a stranger. The goal of such State activity is to get people to roll over on their friends, to quit, to push people into begging the State for mercy. This is why we should never give in to the terrorism practiced by the State; their political means will be their end…

Finally, British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee had a message for the world:

Aaron is dead.

Wanderers in this crazy world,
we have lost a mentor, a wise elder.

Hackers for right, we are one down,
we have lost one of our own.

Nurtures, careers, listeners, feeders,
parents all,
we have lost a child.

Let us all weep.


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