What activist Aaron Swartz showed us

A computer nerd is an unlikely protagonist but changing times create different heroes, writes Barbara Amiel

Michael Francis McElroy/ZUMA/KEYSTONE PRESS

Aaron Swartz knotted his belt and hanged himself in his New York apartment last week. He was 26 years old, a celebrity among Internet hackers, an activist for free online access. He suffered from depression. He was also in the crosshairs of the U.S. Department of Justice, charged with 13 felonies for accessing Massachusetts Institute of Technology computers to download nearly five million files from academic journals as part of his drive to make all information on the web free.

Suicide by hanging is unambiguous. One can’t hang by accident as in overdosing medication. Hanging is not a cry for help. The belt must be tied so that with gravity you will break your neck or alternately suffocate in a few awful minutes. Once the noose is in position, there is a brief moment during which its wearer must make the decision to kick off. I know more than I would prefer about depression and I have a passing acquaintance with that moment before jumping. Even before he made the decision, Aaron had left anything resembling this world for a cage of desperation that beggars description.

Swartz, a school dropout, was the founder of the online group Demand Progress, instrumental in defeating (or at the very least postponing) Congress’s Internet anti-piracy legislation last year. The word “copyright” rolls deprecatingly out of his mouth in now-macabre videos of him on the web. His speech cadences, so like the ones in movies about preppies, evidence his link with Harvard (he was a fellow at Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics) which gave him legitimate use of MIT computers.

A lot of what he said so elegantly was youthful rubbish. He saw a conspiratorial and corrupt world run by multinational organizations and government at the cost of the First Amendment. He and fellow activists banged on about government censorship of the Internet and while not all of it was a lie it was a half-truth. They seemed not to understand that copyright makes content—it’s the lifeblood of a creative and informative web and not just the blunt tool of media companies or an instrument of greed. Without copyright, no writer or creator could earn a living.

Aaron had been on the run for some time. In 2008 he had written a program that put some 20 million legal documents online for free rather than the 10 cents per page the government charges through its Public Access to Court Electronic Records system. The FBI investigated but no charges were laid. The material Swartz allegedly downloaded illegally from MIT—articles from the subscription service Jstor—was already partially free. Jstor’s counsel, former Manhattan federal prosecutor Mary Jo White, had asked the lead prosecutor in the case against Swartz to drop the charges. “Stealing is stealing” was the answer. Trial was set for this April.

Conviction could have got sentences up to 35 years and huge fines though, since prosecutors throw anything at a defendant on the theory that the jury will give them something in return, he might have got a far lower sentence. Aaron was said to be worried about the mounting cost of lawyers. When the FBI first came sniffing around in 2009 he was cocky and mocked their stilted language in reports he obtained via the Freedom of Information Act. By 2012 he was bearing the full weight of a federal investigation and cracking under the burden.

A deal was said to have been offered if he would plead guilty to all 13 felonies. He would not. He was charged under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a controversial law in an evolving field. Swartz’s grief-stricken family blamed his death on “prosecutorial overreach.” But even good friend Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig had misgivings about Swartz’s methods, which if not illegal were, he felt, unethical.

How are we to deal with this emerging group of young activists/idealists who, refusing to recognize certain kinds of property, steal it—even if not for profit? Without sanctions, you create a segment of society beyond the rule of law. Threatening with a vague ill-defined law in the hands of headline-seeking prosecutors leads only to abuses. Because he may have crossed the yellow line, the Swartz case is the wrong one to lift the rock on the rotting world of U.S. justice. Still that may be its singular importance. Everyone in Britain knew for years that the tabloid press was diseased but no move was made until a case involving a murdered young girl created a public uproar. Similarly, perhaps the suicide of a brilliant, unstable youth—even though middle-class and white—might force a look at prosecutorial tactics in the United States.

Had Swartz’s life been ruined in the usual way by a few years imprisonment only his subculture would have noticed. But the grisly suicide of a 26-year-old begs for tempered justice and decency. Look closer and you will see prisons as bleak as Piranesi’s etchings, overflowing with (largely) minority non-violent prisoners, disenfranchised, subject to uneducated and often callous guards, uncared for by a President of their own race, while their families live in impoverished misery.

In modern times excessive imprisonment and injustice have been the rich material of great writers—Zola, Hugo, Kafka, Dickens and Dreiser. A computer nerd is an unlikely protagonist but changing times create different heroes. The canvas awaits. As it is, all I can write is that suicide by hanging was a pretty low-tech exit for so high-tech a genius as Aaron Swartz. May he rest in peace.

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