Forward to next post: A question regarding the prosecution of Aaron Swartz
I didn’t know him. Of course I knew who he was. I was startled to discover—today, after he died—that he followed me on Twitter. (I followed him, but in the same spirit that I follow a lot of interesting open-culture activists who I don’t expect to be aware of me.) For cripes’ sake, he lived in Brooklyn. Given the number of friends and associates we had in common, I could have made his acquaintance at any time. No longer. Life goes by so fast.
Our only point of near-contact was that he wrote an afterword for Cory Doctorow’s novel Homeland, the forthcoming (February 5) sequel to Little Brother. It’s a good afterword. It basically says, hi, this stuff is real, and not only that, but you can change the world just like Marcus. I did. Here’s how.
Over today, I’ve already linked—in the sidebar—to Cory’s heartfelt eulogy, to Henry Farrell’s memories and thoughts, to a very sensible post about depression and suicidal ideation by the comic Rob Delaney, and to the mourning tweet of Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web. (It is perhaps a morbid, inappropriate, and horridly geeky thought, but I cannot escape the idea that even if you die at 26 by your own hand, if you have lived so well that you are mourned by Tim Berners-Lee, you have in some deep sense won at life.)
I want to add a few more links. Rick Perlstein demonstrates, just by listing all the things Swartz did for him, what a piece of human internet infrastructure the man was. Writing on the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s “Deeplinks Blog,” Peter Eckersley talks about how Swartz “did more than almost anyone to make the Internet a thriving ecosystem for open knowledge, and to keep it that way.” Somebody who doesn’t post their name writes a terrific Tumblr post about depression, suicide, and the tendency of people who haven’t been near the latter to try to squeeze the shock into a narrative: “the compassionate genius who was a little too good, or the activist hounded down by the government, or why would such a promising and beloved young person do something like this, or gosh there seems to be a link between creativity and mental illness, or some other well-meaning script.” Point taken. On the other hand, his family and his partner seem pretty convinced that his suicide had to do with the fact that Federal prosecutors were trying their best to get him slammed into jail for upwards of 35 years. “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.” And while families and partners can be mistaken, I think their views on the matter carry a certain amount of weight.
Just for perspective, here are the views of Alex Stamos, an expert in computer crime who was due to testify for the defense in Swartz’s upcoming trial, and who is now free to say what he thinks: “I know a criminal hack when I see it, and Aaron’s downloading of journal articles from an unlocked closet is not an offense worth 35 years in jail.”
If you click on one link from this post, click on this one: Lawrence Lessig. No, wait, I’m just going to reproduce two-thirds of Lessig’s post. It’s that true.
Early on, and to its great credit, JSTOR figured “appropriate” out: They declined to pursue their own action against Aaron, and they asked the government to drop its. MIT, to its great shame, was not as clear, and so the prosecutor had the excuse he needed to continue his war against the “criminal” who we who loved him knew as Aaron.Remember yesterday, when we were all crowing about the wonderfully geeky White House response to the tongue-in-cheek “build a Death Star” petition? Just remember that the same people were in charge of the Federal prosecutors who destroyed Aaron Swartz.
Here is where we need a better sense of justice, and shame. For the outrageousness in this story is not just Aaron. It is also the absurdity of the prosecutor’s behavior. From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. The “property” Aaron had “stolen,” we were told, was worth “millions of dollars” — with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime. But anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar. It was clear what this was not, yet our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed.
Aaron had literally done nothing in his life “to make money.” He was fortunate Reddit turned out as it did, but from his work building the RSS standard, to his work architecting Creative Commons, to his work liberating public records, to his work building a free public library, to his work supporting Change Congress/FixCongressFirst/Rootstrikers, and then Demand Progress, Aaron was always and only working for (at least his conception of) the public good. He was brilliant, and funny. A kid genius. A soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think? That person is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying. I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.
For remember, we live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White House — and where even those brought to “justice” never even have to admit any wrongdoing, let alone be labeled “felons.”
In that world, the 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.
Fifty years in jail, charges our government. Somehow, we need to get beyond the “I’m right so I’m right to nuke you” ethics that dominates our time. That begins with one word: Shame.
One word, and endless tears.