Internet’s Child Aaron Swartz Becomes Collateral Damage

Professor Lawrence Lessig with then-14-year-old prodigy Aaron Swartz

FONTANA, Ca. — It was April 9, 2005 when I met the young person who impressed me so much I’d talk about him for 7 years. I was moderating a panel discussion of bloggers at Stanford University on “eDemocracy: The Role of blogs and Online Activists in 2004″ The young person: 19-year-old Aaron Swartz.

I’ve often told people how I was blown away by Swartz’s eloquence, passion, political ideas and ideas even though I didn’t totally agree with him. Clearly, he was a genius, he was charismatic, he was full of joy, he was brimming with determination about the future — and he was the wave of the future.

And now, at 26, he’s dead.

He hung himself.

I got the news Saturday January 12. By now Swartz’s story is well known: a computer prodigy at 14 whose intellect created some of what computer users take for granted and an Internet activist, Swartz was facing 35 years in prison and possibly a million dollars in fines for illegally downloading academic papers so people could read them for free.

None of the figures convicted in the Watergate scandal even faced that sentence.

This cyberspace Robin Hood ran smack into an uncaring “system” that wanted to make him a high-profile example for all to see. He suffered from severe depression and had written about it. But, in the end, his life’s story, character, depression — nothing could move inflexible institutions and prosecutors.

Haunting info on Swartz’s tragic story is in a Boston Globe report by Kevin Cullen. It notes that Swartz and his attorney “had offered to accept a deferred prosecution or probation, so that if Swartz pulled a stunt like that again, he would end up in prison.” The subscription service JSTOR said OK, but MIT nixed it. According to the Globe, prosecutors said no, insisting he plead guilty to all 35 felonies and serve 6 months. The Wall Street Journal says it could have been up to 7 years.

But the most damning quote for any of us who believe in helping young promising people thrive and in using BALANCE when administering justice if they cross the legal line is this quote from the Globe: “‘The thing that galls me is that I told [one of the prosecutors] the kid was a suicide risk,’ [Swartz's first lawyer] told me. ‘His reaction was a standard reaction in that office, not unique to [him]. He said, ‘Fine, we’ll lock him up.’ I’m not saying they made Aaron kill himself. Aaron might have done this anyway. I’m saying they were aware of the risk, and they were heedless.’”

You don’t have to have been a fly on the wall to imagine someone in the prosecutor’s office respond to Swartz’s plea bargain offer with the phrase: “He made his bed, now he can sleep in it.”

Now Swartz sleeps a deep sleep.

And I wonder: can those at MIT, the Massachusetts prosecutor’s office and the Justice Department whose decisions helped lead to this chain of events sleep at night?

Sadly, I conclude — after the inevitable sigh-I-feel-so-bad or the predictable cover-my-you-know-what comments — the answer is: they’ll move on to focus solely on to their next case.

To those who knew him or knew about him, Swartz was a youthful, quintessentially idealistic, free-spirit intellect who had already changed the Internet, had a lot more he could do — and wouldn’t hurt a fly.

But to others who’d never admit it but saw him as a way to get a notch on their legal belts, make a tough statement to send a message, or get a successfully prosecuted prominent name on a resume for future political office, Swartz is now (their) collateral damage.

Copyright 2013 Joe Gandelman. This weekly column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

4 Comments

  1. Compassionate hero. Selfless trailblazer. Model citizen.

    These are synonyms for punishment in across all ages.
    I’m hardly surprised he was pinned to the wall for doing what we all thought was ethical and perfectly reasonable.

    If there is any crime, it is that publicly funded research is not owned by the public.

    In time I hope we see Aaron’s charitable actions as so commonplace that we dont consider it noteworthy.
    There is literally no defense to be had for why JSTOR or any of these journals and repos continue to paywall us.
    Even as a PhD student with journal access I’m frequently blocked — sometimes even from my own papers.
    It really is baffling that Aaron was somehow wrong and the real thieves — journals — are entitled to suck on the public dollar.

    “It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong.”
    –Voltaire

  2. Compassionate hero. Selfless trailblazer. Model citizen.

    These are synonyms for punishment in across all ages.

    If there is any crime, it is that publicly funded research is not owned by the public.

    I’m hardly surprised he was pinned to the wall for doing what we all thought was ethical and perfectly reasonable. In time I hope we see Aaron’s charitable actions as so commonplace that we dont consider it noteworthy.

    There is literally no defense to be had for subscription paywalls.
    Professors and students write the grants, conduct the research, interpret the results, write the papers, submit the papers, review the papers, and then …. *scratches head*…. then pay for our own works? INSANE.

    It really is baffling that Aaron was somehow wrong and the real thieves — journals — are entitled to suck on the public dollar.

    “It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong.”
    –Voltaire

  3. thanks hyperflow. I never knew I would see the day when someone of insight would say what we who write the papers, do the research, put so much of our skin in the game, yet knowing we are relegated to ‘serf/tenant farmer’ class–keeping ‘the workers’ and the creators from seeing how others respond, meld, inspire, encourage our works–unless each individual has plenty of moolah. I’d add that not only taxpayer funded initiatives and research are held away from those who both make them and those who support them with taxpayer dollars, there are legions of researcher/writers/project makers/creators who put their own dollars in exclusively and they too, if they publish behind ‘walls’ do not have access to their own work in printed journals unless they subscribe. PUblish in ten journals, ten subsription costs to keep up with each journal. The work was not funded by the journal, but by the worker… because the worker believed/s so damn hard in the work.

    The subscription wall, nay, fortress, makes it a one way road to the gates, and no further. Give us your treasure, but you and others, cannot come in.

    This is what I never knew I’d hear in my lifetime, and I’ve far more years behind me than ahead of me, so thank you:

    “There is literally no defense to be had for subscription paywalls.
    Professors and students write the grants, conduct the research, interpret the results, write the papers, submit the papers, review the papers, and then …. *scratches head*…. then pay for our own works? INSANE.”

  4. Whatever you want to call this guy, he was just a guy. He wasn’t collateral damage, he didn’t get caught in shrapnel meant for a terrorist boss. He suffered from depression as most geniuses do. It finally caught up with him. It’s hard being someone with a 150+ IQ in a world of people that have 100. It’s way harder when you’re someone who feels responsible for fixing things. I give him credit for making it to adulthood, but lets not pretend that the justice system killed him. He’ll be missed, he was a person that affected millions of people, but he was just a man.

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