F2C2012: Aaron Swartz keynote - "How we stopped SOPA", May 21, 2012 I know as I stare at the blank page in front of me that I cannot do justice to this post, that my feelings of sadness and anger will prevent me from the eloquence I wish I
January 13, 2013

F2C2012: Aaron Swartz keynote - "How we stopped SOPA", May 21, 2012

I know as I stare at the blank page in front of me that I cannot do justice to this post, that my feelings of sadness and anger will prevent me from the eloquence I wish I could have. So I apologize to you, the reader and I apologize to Aaron Swartz for failing to find the words that his memory is owed.

I knew of Aaron, having been on common lists and sharing common acquaintances and frequently, common political aspirations. But I can't say that we had much in the way of interactions. Still, what I knew of him, genius is not too strong a word. How else could you describe the person who developed RSS at the age of 14? Or sold Reddit to Conde Nast (effectively making him independently wealthy) at the age of 20? He could have sat back on his laurels then, but Aaron had a mission: to make information free and available to all on the internet. Remember, information is the ultimate democratizer and Aaron believed that the internet was a great democratizing tool.

But genius does not necessarily make you smart. Aaron took risks that were not wise and that others warned him against. And those risks ultimately cost Aaron Swartz his life.

Yes, Aaron took his own life. Yes, Aaron suffered from depression, which he wrote about as well as anyone else I've seen and instantly identifiable to anyone who has suffered from it as well.

But Aaron was also facing a terribly bleak future in prison for decades, although his actions hurt no one and put no one in danger. But he had the bad luck of his case coming across the desk of Carmen Ortiz, US Attorney in Massachusetts. Lawrence Lessig, one of Aaron's mentors:

But all this shows is that if the government proved its case, some punishment was appropriate. So what was that appropriate punishment? Was Aaron a terrorist? Or a cracker trying to profit from stolen goods? Or was this something completely different?

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 (s)he needed to continue his war against the “criminal” who we who loved him knew as Aaron.

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.

The ironic part of Aaron's prosecution is that the information he downloaded from the JSTOR files became publicly available for free just months after his arrest. Who did he damage? How was anyone hurt? This, by the way, is not the first time that Ortiz has sought penalties that seemed disproportionate to the crime, ostensibly to build a platform for her own political ambitions (she is expected to run for Governor of Massachusetts).

But contrast the bleak future of decades in prison for downloading public files from behind a paywall to the economic terrorism of Wall Street executives. Or the threatened sedition of a James Yeager. Or the ongoing actions of the NRA, enabling 87 gun deaths a day. These people have caused real and measurable damage to Americans and yet they walk freely on the streets. Greenwald:

Lessig wrote today:

[..]"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'."

Whatever else is true, Swartz was destroyed by a "justice" system that fully protects the most egregious criminals as long as they are members of or useful to the nation's most powerful factions, but punishes with incomparable mercilessness and harshness those who lack power and, most of all, those who challenge power.

There is so much for which to grieve: the senseless suicide of a young man; the ongoing painful void within his family and friends; the tools that Aaron may have yet conceived, likely in the spirit of opening access for the masses. But we must also grieve for a failed justice system that made suicide the best option for Aaron Swartz.

Rick Perlstein gives a moving eulogy here.

Sign a petition asking the White House to remove Carmen Ortiz from the Swartz case.

Or donate to Demand Progress, Aaron's foundation, dedicated to progressive policy change

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