The death of Aaron Swartz

By EDITORIAL  |  January 23, 2013

This is the country we live in: not a single Wall Street executive has been indicted for crashing the world economy and gaming the financial system out of multi-billions in order to rip off an entire generation of hard-working Americans. Yet the United States Department of Justice, through the agency of its Boston US Attorney, saw fit — as a matter of routine practice — to legally pursue a young, idealistic Internet activist and internationally known computer scientist, Aaron Swartz, with a heavy-handed perseverance that can only be called sick and perverted.

After a sadistic persecution by the office of US Attorney Carmen Ortiz and prosecutors Steve Heymann and Scott Garland, the 26-year-old Swartz hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment on January 11.

Swartz, like so many computer prodigies, was a college drop-out — Stanford, in his case. He was also a key contributor to the development of Rich Site Summary, or RSS. Now ubiquitous, RSS gives users the ability to keep pace with new postings on individual sites, or — more ambitiously — to aggregate from a huge array of far-flung locations.

Swartz's efforts also propelled the success of Reddit, the hugely popular social news site that collectively interviewed President Obama last summer.

The common denominator in Swartz's technical efforts was access. Not surprisingly, his social activism focused on efforts to make as much information as possible freely available to as many as practicable.

If Swartz's brain was touched by genius, his heart was expansive — filled with a utopian dream of a world made better by unfettered access to information. The Phoenix applauds Swartz's efforts to make public documents widely available — as well as documents that should be public, but aren't. But we suspect we hold a different view when it comes to commercial copyright.

Debating copyright with Swartz is now — sadly, tragically, outrageously — impossible.

The case against Swartz — based on a narrow, almost unreasonable reading of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act — was hardly airtight. Swartz was accused of downloading, without authorization, a huge cache of scholarly articles from a nonprofit company, JSTOR. Contrary to what has been reported elsewhere, Swartz did not hack into the system — at least not as the term is widely understood.

For whatever reason, it appears that JSTOR was willing to forgive and forget Swartz's raid on their content, perhaps because JSTOR was planning — as they now have — to make the archive available to the public, much of it at no cost.

But MIT wasn't forgiving. To its everlasting shame, the university lacked the sense of proportion, the sense of decency, the sense of restraint, to tell the US Attorney to go to hell. All those brains, and it turns out that MIT had its head stuck up its ass.

As for the US Attorney, even by standards of prosecutorial overreach — an increasingly alarming phenomenon — the behavior of Ortiz and her henchmen was morally repugnant, characterized by Soviet-style hyperbole that sought to portray Swartz as a master criminal, an archfiend, a menace to American society, and a threat to the very pillars of Western civilization.

MIT may have lost its sense of proportion, but the Justice Department, as is frighteningly so often the case, had none to begin with.

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  Topics: The Editorial Page , Aaron Swartz, Reddit, Computer Science
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