In wake of Aaron Swartz suicide, friend says prosecution was unjustifiable

Jan 14, 2013, 12:30 PM | Updated: Jan 25, 2013, 10:50 am

This Dec. 8, 2012 photo provided by ThoughtWorks shows Aaron Swartz, in New York. Swartz, a co-founder of Reddit, hanged himself Friday, Jan. 11, 2013, in New York City. In 2011, he was charged with stealing millions of scientific journals from a computer archive at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in an attempt to make them freely available. He had pleaded not guilty, and his federal trial was to begin next month. (AP Photo/ThoughtWorks, Pernille Ironside)

(AP Photo/ThoughtWorks, Pernille Ironside)

Struggling with depression wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling for Aaron Swartz, and his federal court case was set to begin in February, where he was facing up to 35 years in prison. The walls might have felt like they were closing in.

MSNBC host Chris Hayes said that even though he was a friend of Swartz, they never discussed his battle with depression. In fact Swartz had never mentioned his struggles to Hayes. The TV host only knew about it from posts Swartz had made to his blog.

He calls this intimate knowledge of his friend, “very 21st century.”

And at the height of social media world, that makes sense. As a teenager, Swartz helped create RSS, a family of web feed formats used to gather updates from blogs, news headlines, audio and video for users. He also was a co-founder of the social news website Reddit, which was later sold to Conde Nast.

It was when Reddit was sold that Hayes said Swartz was set for life in terms of money. He could have gone on to become a rich man in the tech start-up community.

“Instead, he read about 150 books a year and started activist groups,” Hayes told KIRO Radio’s Luke Burbank and Tom Tangney.

The next part of his life that led to federal indictment charges, according to Hayes, results in different legal and philosophical beliefs about information.

Swartz was a fellow at Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics when he found a loophole in a database for academic papers. JSTOR, a subscription service used by large educational institutions, like MIT, offers digitized copies of articles from more than 1,000 academic journals. Said Hayes, “He’s alleged to have written a script that found a loophole and batch downloaded articles.”

A subscription to JSTOR is not for the every-man. According to Hayes, a subscription runs in the thousands of dollars, which is why universities are the major subscribers.

As for the academic papers that JSTOR distributes – many of them are written because of public funding, like government supported grants. The freedom of this information, of these academic papers has long been a part of the conversation online regarding the ability to distribute information, and how with every day it becomes more accessible. It’s a conversation that Swartz was a part of, but it’s not necessarily the reason why he downloaded all of the papers.

Prosecutors said he intended to make those papers public.

Hayes said that a security expert who was going to testify in the case said what Swartz did was ‘inconsiderate, in the same way that checking out every book on a single topic is inconsiderate.’

The U.S. Attorney’s office went after Swartz aggressively. He was indicted in 2011 on 13 counts, including wire fraud and computer fraud.

JSTOR said they did not want the U.S. attorney to pursue the case against Swartz, and that U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston had overreached in seeking prison time – asking for a nearly 35-year sentence.

Since his death, Swartz’s family has said the case is “the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutor overreach.”

JSTOR announced this week that it would make more than 4.5 million articles publicly available for free.

Still, for someone who publicly confessed his struggles with mental illness, Hayes said, “It’s a horrible horrible horrible waste. It’s not rational in some strict sense, but I think not completely un-understandable.”

Hayes was a friend of Swartz, he said they were fellows together, but the grief isn’t limited to close friends and family. For a web pioneer, grief is pouring in from all over the Internet.

On Monday, in wake of Swartz’s suicide, the charges against him were dropped, but as Hayes said, “I don’t think the prosecution was in anyway justifiable.”

Ross and Burbank


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In wake of Aaron Swartz suicide, friend says prosecution was unjustifiable