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I had no idea who Aaron Swartz was, but his death moves me

I had no idea who Aaron Swartz was, but his death moves me

I don’t think I knew who Aaron Swartz was, but this announcement of his death moved me:

Aaron Swartz, online activist and founder of Infogami, a service later merged with Reddit, has committed suicide in New York City on Jan. 11, the Tech reports.

The news was revealed to the Tech by Swartz’s uncle Michael Wolf and confirmed by Swartz’s attorney, Elliot R. Peters. “The tragic and heartbreaking information you received is, regrettably, true,” said Peters.

Born in 1986, Swartz has co-authored the first specification of RSS when he was 14. He also started Infogami, a service founded by Y Combinator that was later merged with social networking site Reddit.

Swartz also co-founded Demand Progress, an advocacy group that rallies people “to take action on the news that affects them — by contacting Congress and other leaders, funding pressure tactics, and spreading the word in their own communities.”

In July 2011, Swartz was arrested for allegedly harvesting 4 million academic papers from the JSTOR online journal archive. He appeared in court in Sept. 2012, pleading not guilty.

A blog post from 2007 on Swartz’s website reveals a possible cause for taking his own life: depression. In the post, Swartz describes his experiences with severe depression, as well as several other health issues, including migraines.

There’s something about a 14-year old kid who invents a core technology which is a spirit we should encourage.  And so often that type of genius comes with its own issues.  A friend of his writes:

Aaron accomplished some incredible things in his life. He was one of the early builders of Reddit (someone always turns up to point out that he was technically not a co-founder, but he was close enough as makes no damn), got bought by Wired/Conde Nast, engineered his own dismissal and got cashed out, and then became a full-time, uncompromising, reckless and delightful shit-disturber.

The post-Reddit era in Aaron’s life was really his coming of age. His stunts were breathtaking. At one point, he singlehandedly liberated 20 percent of US law. PACER, the system that gives Americans access to their own (public domain) case-law, charged a fee for each such access. After activists built RECAP (which allowed its users to put any caselaw they paid for into a free/public repository), Aaron spent a small fortune fetching a titanic amount of data and putting it into the public domain. The feds hated this. They smeared him, the FBI investigated him, and for a while, it looked like he’d be on the pointy end of some bad legal stuff, but he escaped it all, and emerged triumphant.

It’s unclear whether his indictment contributed to his suicide, but it’s hard to see how it wouldn’t.  He was charged with downloading academic papers — yes, academic papers — to help spread knowledge.

Why academics ever would have wanted to limit access to their writings is incomprehensible from an academic perspective. Even JSTOR is realizing that model cannot go on forever:

Anyone in academia or who has had a brush with academia knows about JSTOR, the nearly two-decades old digital library of academic journals. God knows this longtime student is quite familiar with it. It’s notoriously closed off and expensive for those in academia to access, but its launching a new program to try to fix that. A little.

JSTOR is opening up their Register & Read program to the public after nearly a year-long pilot program which saw 150,000 participants.


Update:  I wish I had previously seen Swartz’s website and series about Wikipedia.  More on the charges against him, US Government Ups Felony Count In JSTOR/Aaron Swartz Case From Four To Thirteen.

More:  I think learning about this on the heels of David Gregory being given preferential treatment is what has affected me.  This from Crooked Timber about how Swartz was treated:

The last time I saw Aaron, we didn’t talk about the JSTOR incident itself, for all the obvious reasons. We did talk about the Kafkaesque nightmare he had landed in, where literally anything he said could be taken grossly out of context and used against him by a prosecutorial apparatus apparently more driven by vindictiveness, stupidity and politics than by any particular interest in justice or the public interest. He told me how, when the police finally came around to search his apartment, some weeks after the charges had been laid, he jokingly asked them what had taken them so long. Of course, he then found these words being twisted by the prosecutors to suggest that he had effectively admitted he was guilty.

And from Lawrence Lessig:

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.

What the people who mock our mockery of the handling of the Gregory case don’t get is that we didn’t want David Gregory prosecuted, we wanted an end to the arbitrary and capricious use of byzantine gun laws which capture innocent people in their web, but are not enforced as to the powerful and connected.  Perhaps if the people who advocated for those and even more onerous laws had to live by them, we might end the madness.


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It is a considerable loss to the culture in general when a person like this is lost. For a peek behind the curtain you might want to read this book: Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking by E. Gabriella Coleman.

I have heard of him. His goal was more access to more information for everyone, which is always a good thing. And from what I’ve remember reading about him, he felt money should not be a hinderance to information, it should be free or at least accesible to all.

He’s views seemed to be that of a classical limited govt liberal.

    Radegunda in reply to alex. | January 12, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    “money should not be a hinderance to information, it should be free or at least accesible to all” —

    In other words: people who do research and analyze their findings and make the effort to communicate them should do it all for no compensation because everyone else is entitled to that information?

    That’s along the same lines as saying that people should be able to download whatever music they want without paying for it, and the people who create and produce it should expect nothing in return.

    Anything (aside from oxygen) that you think you should get free of charge is something you don’t actually value very much.

      this isn’t about downloading music or movies. That is entertainment.

      Let me ask you, a book, before public libraries, only certain people who had money could purchase said book. Only those people had access to that information, to that knowledge. Once that book is in a public library, a person of no wealth, through his/her own initiative can go read that book and others, gain knowledge to invent something or further progress in a certain field.

      As for white papers, most white papers, even those who charge for access to those papers, a low income person, while they will not get access thru a library, since they don’t carry this level of detailed scientific papers, if you go to a university, they will help you out, I have done this when I was in college and needed some papers which I did not have access to.

      What you are referring to is entertainment type stuff, what this guy was more about was access to knowledge. This isn’t about patents, I strongly believe in patents and making sure those who do the hard work get fully compensated for their work, and protect them from someone just copying their invention aka the Chinease, but this man’s work about releasing papers is about foundational knowledge, which all of us, regardless of wealth or status, should have access too.

      Those who use this free access to invent something etc, their work should not be infringed with their patent, once that knowledge has surpassed its patent compensation(which is about 10 years I think), then it becomes part of the foundational knowledge which then should be free information, which then someone else can use to improve that idea, product or come up with a better idea/product.

and so much more contributions would have been possible from him.

He committed suicide yesterday, was only 26 year old.

Our nation can ill afford to lose, the “reckless and delightful shit-disturber”. Be he or she, particularly with the leaders of both parties we now have.

WE need all of the Breitbart’s Swartz’s, Jacobson’s, Reynold’s, Roger L.’s, Gingrich’s, Malkin’s, Shapiro’s, West’s, etc, etc, that are brave enough to meet the Left head on.

Senseless, indeed! RIP, Aaron.

redditt/demand progress.
extremely progressive PACs.
I’ll stop now.

    William A. Jacobson in reply to dmacleo. | January 12, 2013 at 1:27 pm

    Demand Progress was an anti-SOPA and internet freedom group whose goals a lot of us supported even if we were not members. Do not confuse it with so many of the other groups with “progress” in the name but which advocate for more oppressive and restrictive government. (added) You are right that Demand Progress was an activist organization, but I don’t put it in the league of the other nanny state proponents. If I’m wrong about that, so be it.

What a waste, to himself and to us all.

The controversy about big business’s intellectual “property” is one which exemplifies the GOP’s institutional fecklessness and corruption. I’ve talked about it occasionally and will do so again. However, just now I am mortified.

To An Athlete Dying Young

THE time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears:

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.

“What the people who mock our mockery of the handling of the Gregory case don’t get is that we didn’t want David Gregory prosecuted, we wanted an end to the arbitrary and capricious use of byzantine gun laws which capture innocent people in their web, but are not enforced as to the powerful and connected. Perhaps if the people who advocated for those and even more onerous laws had to live by them, we might end the madness.”

Right on.

As someone who has struggled with depression his whole life, I can tell you that his final act doesn’t surprise me at all.

I often think that if it weren’t for my kids, I might not be here anymore.

I’ve had a couple of bad weeks at work where I had to take on some really unfair supervisors … nothing compared to what he had to go through … and it’s really exacerbated an episode of derpression I’ve been going through.

When you’re struggling to just get through the day, day after day, people unfairly mucking with you can just seem to be too much to bear. People in law enforcement and the judicial system need to constantly bear in my they are supposed to serve us fairly.

May he rest in peace.

    LukeHandCool in reply to LukeHandCool. | January 12, 2013 at 2:00 pm

    That last sentence should read “… bear in MIND …”

    You have my sympathy, Luke-san. Depression, like addiction, can be hard to understand for people who haven’t experienced it. Hell, once an episode has passed, depression and addiction can be hard to understand even for an afflicted individual.

    Few of us are heroes, indomitably overcoming impossible challenges. The lot of most is to take responsibility and play the hands we’re dealt as best we can, which is not an attitude encouraged by today’s victim culture. Best wishes.

      LukeHandCool in reply to gs. | January 12, 2013 at 3:09 pm

      Thanks, gs.

      May the Mike Nifongs of this world never be among the first 400 people in the Boston telephone directory.

I sometimes reflect on the incredible damage to our society the law and lawyers have inflicted. I remember our state having to pass a law so that, if you got in a car accident, you could legally say “I’m sorry” without it being held against you in a lawsuit, this is how common decency has been twisted by lawyers. There was a story today about an investment firm that had “invested” in a legal team that brought a bogus environmental suit against Chevron to try to extort millions from them. Anyone who considers themselves a kind, law-abiding person who has brushed up against the law knows how devastating it can be to your self-image, I have no doubt the charges against him contributed to his suicide.

I was bedridden in 2010 and 2011 with chronic migraine. None of the preventives commonly prescribed prevented migraine in my case and all came with side affects. If there had been an easy way out, I might have taken it. In 2012, by the Grace of God, I tripped upon a six med combo taken nightly which alleviated migraine onset by about 85%.

God be with you, Luke, and send you relief.

    LukeHandCool in reply to logos. | January 12, 2013 at 3:51 pm

    Jeeez, logos.

    Thank God you found something that works. Depression is bad enough, but chronic pain is worse. Not a day goes by when I don’t tell myself there are people feeling much worse than me and to just keep putting one foot in front of the other …

    On Wednesday I had a migraine and, just before I was headed out the door for work, had to run to the bathroom to vomit. Didn’t make it to the toilet in time. Had to shower again and change clothes.

    I can’t imagine feeling like that for two years. Jeeez.

    Stay well!!!

      Luke, life is not fair that you should have to deal with two major conditions: depression and migraine.

      I dealt with episodic migraine for twelve years. When I got to the point that i was spending every other Friday morning through Sunday night in bed, unable to tolerate sounds, I went to a neurologist who prescribed sumatriptan (Imitrex). For the next ten years, the sumatriptan would kick in and I’d be back on my feet, on the way to work, within five hours. Then, the condition transformed to chronic and the sumatriptan would relieve the pain in the head, but the malaise and debilitation were indescribably overwhelming and kept me in bed. And, like clockwork, I’d be awakened the next night between 2:30 am – 5:30 am with another headbanger.

      Now, when I get a breakthrough migraine, I take both sumatriptan and Zomig to get relief.

      I wish I could offer you some helpful advice on overcoming depression, but I can’t.

      If you haven’t, you might want to get a prescription for sumatriptan. Treating the migraine pain would, perhaps, make the other condition more bearable – or less unbearable.

      I will pray that God will heal you. God bless you, Luke.

    Juba Doobai! in reply to logos. | January 12, 2013 at 9:14 pm

    I know what you mean. I spent years having hormonal lay induced migraines. At one time, I used to be able to categorize the variety. The worst were the head bouncers and the jagged needle that pierced the skull, the eye, and the teeth. The drugs? Migraines laugh at over the counters; the one effective med was also addictive, and it was a real happy pill cuz I laughed like a loon when I took it. Pain was preferable to addiction, so I ate pain for years. Maybe the changing body as I got older and lots and lots of water-chugging out an end to the nightmare of 12-24 weeks a year of migraines.

    This Aaron Swarz, may God rest his soul. He was activist for a transparent society and access to knowledge. He understood that learning doesn’t require gates, just access.

    BannedbytheGuardian in reply to logos. | January 12, 2013 at 10:53 pm

    Logos. If a migraine should befall you ,could you tell your nearest & dearest to log on & tick all posts by BBTG .

    Otherwise the downers will unbalance everything & Guam will tip over.


      How could you have known I uptick your comments? I lurk more than I comment.

      I always appreciated your comments and then you went to bat for me when BrownDog and I tangled over the relative merits of Christopher Hitchens shortly after his death.

      I held no hard feelings against BrownDog (I, too, own a chocolate lab) and I uptick his comments with which I generally concur.

      I salute your ability to hold the enemy closer by checking out lefty sites. I’m not cut out for that and it would trigger the most uncharitable thoughts on my part, as well as acid reflux.

      I, and my loved ones, will strive to maintain uptick equilibrium to keep Guam upright in the ocean.

[…] DeLong,  Crooked Timber, The Agonist, The Atlantic Online, Guardian, Balloon Juice, The Lede,Le·gal In·sur·rec· tion, Gawker, TechCrunch, Althouse and Lessig Blog, v2, The Reality-Based […]

[…] Jacobson at Legal Insurrection has up a terrific post on “I had no idea who Aaron Swartz was, but his death moves me.” Good […]

[…] Also, Swartz was being hassled by the feds because he illegally downloaded some stuff that should have been free to begin with. Professor Jacobson at Legal Insurrection discusses that. […]

This is from the family of Aaron, second to last paragraph is probably the answer.

BannedbytheGuardian | January 12, 2013 at 8:45 pm

Ok. This is not a case I would be warrioring.

I have been over to sympathetic left sites & gotten quite a different story than LI.

I have it that he was warned off entering MIT premises. ( there must be priors ). he entered a lab & ‘broke into ‘ the system & downloaded files from an academic storage / managed facility (x) that was contracted to MIT. X then barred MIT & all it’s users from access for some time causing severe lack of productivity . Given that MIT is one of the truly few productive academic units this is an economic attack on America.

It does not help that he was from nearby competitor Harvard . Why could this not be academic infiltration ,impersonation & terrorism aimed at MIT?

His depression should not be a factor in his prosecution but could be used in defense of course.

His decision to hang himself is his & his alone. Hanging is really really gruesome to find & very cruel to whom he knew would find him. My sympathies are for them.

On a cheerier note we still have Julian Assange .

I just joined JSTOR. They are not serious about open access to knowledge. Three free articles every two weeks. Anybody serious about research gobbles that in an hour or two.

Here’s what the JSTOR membership email says, “JSTOR is a part of ITHAKA, a not-for-profit organization helping the academic community use digital technologies to preserve the scholarly record and to advance research and teaching in sustainable ways.”

They’re not for profit? What a joke! You have to pay to read. No wonder Swarz downloaded them. What I wouldn’t give to access his files on their Relgion section!

    BannedbytheGuardian in reply to Juba Doobai!. | January 12, 2013 at 10:26 pm

    ‘his files ‘ on their religion section.

    He was very left w so if he specifically sought some , they would definitely not make you happy.

    From my left sites – it appears it was more a mass download .

    However now that he is dead , we can build fun theories. You ca n hope for a religious angle & I can say he was preparing an attack on MIT intellectual & economic databases.

    I am very surprised you guys cannot recognize the enemy on your door.

Mister Natural | January 13, 2013 at 4:36 am

and physicians should not be able to take profit because you should not be allowed to profit from making people healthy or curing them