To some, Aaron Swartz’s death represents a struggle between hackers and authority

The New York Times | TechCrunch | The Verge | Soup | danah boyd
Aaron Swartz “has come to symbolize a different debate over how aggressively governments should pursue criminal cases against people … who believe in ‘freeing’ information,” Noam Cohen writes in The New York Times.

Swartz, a coauthor of RSS and a creator of Reddit, killed himself Friday. A lot of the anger surrounding his death has been directed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Anonymous appears to have hacked MIT’s website, leaving a message that said, in part:

“We do not consign blame or responsibility upon MIT for what has happened, but call for all those feel heavy-hearted in their proximity to this awful loss to acknowledge instead the responsibility they have — that we all have — to build and safeguard a future that would make Aaron proud”

MIT released a statement Sunday saying it will investigate its role in Swartz’s prosecution for stealing academic journal articles via its network.

Swartz and the university settled, but MIT gave evidence it gathered to the U.S. Secret Service, Tim Carmody writes in The Verge.

In a motion to suppress communication and disclosures from MIT sources, Swartz’s attorneys note that MIT turned over evidence it collected to the US Secret Service, who had taken over the investigation two days prior to Swartz’s arrest. … MIT, in the interpretation offered in this motion, was acting as a government agent without due process.

Swartz’s family and partner said in a statement that his death “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.

Danah Boyd recalls her frustrating friendship with Swartz and says “There’s no doubt in my mind that depression was a factor” in his suicide but that he “became a toy for a government set on showing their strength.” She also writes that she fears “the likelihood that Aaron will be turned into a martyr, an abstraction of a geek activist destroyed by the State.” Swartz’s “stubbornness made him breakable,” she writes.

If we want to achieve the values and goals that are core to the geek community, I don’t think that we’ll ever make a difference by creating more martyrs that can be used as examples in a cultural war. As we collectively mourn Aaron’s death and channel our anger into making a difference, I think we need to look for an approach to change-making that doesn’t result in brilliant people being held up as examples so that they can be tormented by power.

Related: GW law professor Orin Kerr says the criminal charges against Swartz “were pretty much legit” | GigaOM collects online tributes to Swartz | Tributes from Dave Winer and Derek Willis, as well as a related Storify by Alex Howard.

More tributes and thoughts about Swartz’s work: Cory Doctorow | Quinn Norton | Lawrence Lessig | James Grimmelmann | Declan McCullagh

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  • NateBowman

    “JSTOR figured “appropriate” out: They declined to pursue their own action against Aaron, and they asked the government to drop its.”

  • NateBowman

    Here, a piece just focusing on the positive effects of his political stances:

  • NateBowman

    No one at Poynter seems interested in checking out the guilt-before-trial statement above.

    Here is what Alex Stamos, an expert on internet security (and slated to be Mr. Swartz’s expert witness at his trial) has to say:

    “Apparently some people feel the need to self-aggrandize by opining on the guilt of the recently departed, and I wanted to take this chance to speak on behalf of a man who can no longer defend himself…

    “I am no long-haired-hippy-anarchist who believes that anything goes on the Internet. I am much closer to the stereotypical capitalist-white-hat sellout…

    “In short, 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…

    “…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…”

  • NateBowman

    Maybe because all the people who knew him best attribute it more to the effects of the actions of MIT and the criminal prosecution than to any depression issues.
    But I guess you know better.

  • facebook-749911534

    It is a sad tragic story for a 26 year old man to off himself, by hanging, according to reports, but it has also been reported he suffered longtime from depression and mood swings, and Ms. Norton in the NYT story said, Aaron had “struggled with chronic, painful illness
    as well as depression,” she said, without specifying the ”illness”,
    [.....anyone know what this illness was? ] ANSWERS from media contacts: “yes, depression is the KEY here, whatever the effects of the prosecution or other issues. …..
    In a 2007 essay mentioned and linked to in the NYT story, he talks about digestive problems and migraines….” while all the headlines were about internet issues, why are so few media outlets talking about what REALLY led to his offing himself? Irresponsible or afraid of being unPC?

  • Brett Schnaper

    Examples must and shall always be made of those in government who seek to make examples of people who’re not in government. All involved should maintain exemplary, even saintly behavior for the rest of their lives. Someone will always be waiting for them to slip.

  • NateBowman

    Wow, not a word about Mr. Swartz’s positive contributions. (And if you think the links at the bottom count, they don’t. Just look at your statistics on how many people click on them.)

    This is what makes me think Poynter is part of the commercial mass media and not as interested in the principles and ethics of journalism as they claim.

    1. Helping developf RSS

    2. Helping develop Reddit

    3. The development Creative Commons.

    4. Working passionately for internet freedom, civil liberties, and making information and knowledge as available as possible rather than pursuing the big bucks he could have easily made.

    Poynter again focuses on none of this, but bills it as “To some, Aaron Swartz’s death represents a struggle between hackers and authority.”

    Very telling.

  • NateBowman

    “MIT released a statement Sunday saying it will investigate its role in
    Swartz’s prosecution for stealing academic journal articles via its

    Please research this accusation.
    As far as I know, Mr. Swartz was a member of JSTOR and could download anything he wanted.