Memorials for Aaron Swartz Turn to Discussion of How to Honor His Legacy

Noah Berger, Reuters, Newscom

Aaron H. Swartz faced a criminal trial that could have landed him in prison for three decades. The young computer programmer and open-access crusader committed suicide last month.
February 10, 2013

An event held in a Congressional office building last week to honor Aaron H. Swartz, the young computer programmer and open-access advocate who committed suicide last month, was as much a rally calling for change in the U.S. justice system as a memorial service.

The gathering had the respectful air of a memorial, with light classical music playing as people took their seats and images of Mr. Swartz lit up a small projection screen. The audience was hushed.

Until the yelling started.

The service, one of several throughout the country since Mr. Swartz's death, was held in the Cannon Caucus Room of the Cannon House Office Building. It's the same space in which the House Un-American Activities Committee held its most publicized hearings.

Berin Szoka, leader of the advocacy group TechFreedom, had just stepped up to the podium. He, like other speakers, called on Congress to reform the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which prescribes the harsh penalties that some people close to Mr. Swartz believe drove him to suicide.

But while other speakers praised Mr. Swartz without question, Mr. Szoka said he did not condone the crimes Mr. Swartz had allegedly committed by breaking into a computer-wiring closet at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and downloading millions of scholarly articles from the nonprofit journal archive JSTOR.

The crowd reacted with hostility. "Access for everyone!" people began yelling. "Information wants to be free!"

It was a tense moment that passed only when Mr. Swartz's partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, stood and called for silence.

Mr. Szoka continued, calling Mr. Swartz a victim, not an open-access martyr. But a simmering anger from both the crowd and Mr. Szoka, punctuated by nervous laughter, remained.

At memorials for Mr. Swartz and across the Internet, there has been much discussion about some kind of movement to honor the activist's legacy. But there may not yet be an agreement as to what such a movement, or Mr. Swartz's legacy, will be.

An Open-Access Manifesto

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act became law in 1984. Two years later, the same year the law was amended for the first of many times, Aaron Swartz was born.

By age 3, Mr. Swartz was already teaching himself to read, his father, Bob Swartz, said. At 14, he was helping create a version of RSS, the technology protocol to syndicate content online. Then he assisted in the creation of the Creative Commons license, co-founded the popular Web site Reddit, and founded an online-activist group called Demand Progress. In 2008, then in his early 20s and fully invested in the open-access movement, he wrote a "Guerilla Open Access Manifesto," which criticizes corporations for digitizing academic books and journals and then charging money for access.

"Information is power," Mr. Swartz wrote. "But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves."

For several months in 2010 and 2011, he allegedly attempted to put ideas from his manifesto into practice. With a laptop computer hidden in a closet at MIT, he made unauthorized downloads of more than four million articles from JSTOR. A federal indictment accused Mr. Swartz of downloading the documents with the intention of uploading them to the Internet and making them free. If convicted on all counts, he faced up to three decades in prison.

But the federal prosecution of the case had some legal experts and activists puzzled, because the civil complaints against Mr. Swartz had been dropped. JSTOR had settled any civil claims it had against him, as he had returned all the data he had downloaded from its servers, said Heidi McGregor, a spokeswoman for the archive.

Ms. McGregor said that the organization's interest was in ensuring the materials were returned, and that JSTOR had held no influence over how the U.S. attorney's office in Massachusetts had handled the case.

"We don't own the data, the publishers own it," Ms. McGregor said. "So our objective was to just get it back."

'The Bad Thing'

Many close to Mr. Swartz were not aware of how much trouble he was in until the first federal indictment was unsealed, in July 2012. His partner, Ms. Stinebrickner-Kauffman, said that the indictment hung over their relationship like a cloud, but that  for months she knew it only as "the bad thing." At Mr. Swartz's memorial, she recalled how he had taken her aside the day before the indictment was unsealed.

"The bad thing might be in the news tomorrow," he told her. "I downloaded too many journal articles, and I'm being indicted for it."

"That doesn't actually sound like a very big deal," she remembered saying.

"Well, they want to make an example out of me," Mr. Swartz said. "But it's not like someone has cancer."

In the end, Ms. Stinebrickner-Kauffman said, it was kind of like that. On January 11, Mr. Swartz hanged himself in his New York apartment. He was 26. The trial had been scheduled for April.

Online Tributes

After the news of Mr. Swartz's death broke, it didn't take long for those mourning his death to begin formulating ways of honoring his memory.

The initial wave of response was driven by grief and anger, with its focus being on whom to hold responsible. Some, including Mr. Swartz's family and his lawyer, placed blame on MIT and the U.S. attorney's office in Boston. The federal prosecutors, the family stated, had pursued an "an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims."

An online petition calling for the resignation of the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, Carmen M. Ortiz, has gained more than 52,000 signatures. Another petition, calling for the resignation of an assistant U.S. attorney in the same office, Stephen P. Heymann, has gained 23,000 signatures.

As anger toward the federal prosecutors swelled, U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican and chairman of the House of Representatives Oversight Committee, began an inquiry into the Justice Department's handling of the case.

MIT's president, L. Rafael Reif, also began an internal investigation into how the university had reacted to Mr. Swartz's alleged crime, appointing Hal Abelson, an MIT professor, to look into what options the university had after it became aware of Mr. Swartz's activities and the decisions the university made.

Others responded outside of official channels. The "hacktivist" group Anonymous reportedly attacked MIT's Web site, transforming pages into memorials for Mr. Swartz and causing a Web outage that lasted for hours. The statement on the hacked pages described the prosecution of Mr. Swartz as "a grotesque miscarriage of justice" and called for a reform of computer crime and copyright laws. The group later also hacked the Web site of the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

Less controversially, scholars began posting tributes to Mr. Swartz and his open-access vision on Twitter, using the hashtag #PDFtribute, along with PDF versions of their own published works, some of which had previously been behind paywalls.

"RIP Aaron Swartz," tweeted John Hoopes, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Kansas, linking to his own research. "Information wants to be free."

Briefly, some bloggers used the moment to turn the conversation to mental health; Mr. Swartz reportedly had struggled with depression. Ms. Stinebrickner-Kauffman later wrote a blog post about the subject, saying depression was not to blame and arguing that Mr. Swartz had not been experiencing depression at the time.

"I believe that Aaron's death was caused by a criminal-justice system that prioritizes power over mercy, vengeance over justice; a system that punishes innocent people for trying to prove their innocence instead of accepting plea deals that mark them as criminals in perpetuity," she wrote.

'Aaron's Law'

The idea for honoring Mr. Swartz's legacy that has gained the most traction is to push for reform of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from California, is drafting a bill, called "Aaron's Law," that seeks to amend that and other statutes.

"It looks like the government used the vague wording of those laws to claim that violating an online service's user agreement or terms of service is a violation of the CFAA and the wire-fraud statute," Ms. Lofgren wrote on Reddit, where she had posted an earlier draft of the bill. "Using the law in this way could criminalize many everyday activities and allow for outlandishly severe penalties."

Peter Suber, director of the Harvard Open Access Project, said that reform of the computer-fraud statute is needed, and that there's plenty of energy and bipartisan support to do so. Similar support for a bill mandating open access to most nonclassified, federally supported research would also be a way to honor Mr. Swartz, he said. A bill aiming to do just that has been introduced in the last three sessions of Congress.

"It had sponsors from both parties, and more Congressional and public support each time it was introduced," Mr. Suber said. "But it never came up for a vote."

'More Than a Hacker'

At the memorial service here, Mr. Swartz's friends and family members spoke about his long list of accomplishments. Mr. Swartz was a busy man, and not all of his activities involved what he considered civil disobedience.

"Aaron Swartz was a hacker, but he was much more than a hacker," said Lawrence Lessig, the Harvard Law professor and intellectual-law critic who was one of Mr. Swartz's longtime mentors. "He was an Internet activist, but he was much more than an Internet activist. Aaron was, in the best possible sense of this term, a citizen."

Mr. Swartz was constantly creating new ideas, programs, and Web sites. He was a contributing editor to The Baffler, a magazine that is, incidentally, now produced by MIT Press. He was, for five months, a Congressional intern. He was a prolific blogger, writing a seven-part series about "getting better at life" as well as his thoughts on Hollywood blockbusters like Looper and The Dark Knight Rises. In a November post about Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, he concluded that Batman "is left without solutions. Out of options, it's no wonder the series ends with his staged suicide."

Mr. Swartz earned respect and admiration from all along the political spectrum, a fact that could be seen at his memorial. While a show of hands revealed there were only about 11 Republicans in the room, it was notable to see any people identifying themselves as conservatives at a public memorial for a progressive activist. Congressman Issa spoke at the event, saying that he and Mr. Swartz had probably disagreed on many things, "but never with the question of whether information was in fact a human right."

Mr. Suber said he was not surprised by the differing ideas of how to honor Mr. Swartz, adding that even those looking for ways to improve open access in his name often differ on how to do that.

"It's like every other social movement," Mr. Suber said. "There's all kinds of people pulling more or less in the same direction, but certain details where they disagree. I think over time that will have a major transformative effect. I try to keep the disagreement in perspective."

It was Mr. Swartz's wide range of interests, projects, friends, and admirers that may make it so difficult to find the right way to honor him, said David Segal, who founded Demand Progress with Mr. Swartz. At the memorial, Mr. Segal said that he was finding it hard to take the outrage over Mr. Swartz's death and turn it into productive activism and policy work.

"That would be much easier a thing to achieve if Aaron had been a normal sort of activist, someone who cared passionately about just a narrow issue or two that touched him personally," Mr. Segal said. "But Aaron wanted everything. He wanted to change the whole world, and more than anybody else that I've known, he stood a chance of actually achieving that."

Correction (2/11/2013, 11 a.m.): This article originally cited an incorrect first name for the leader of the advocacy group TechFreedom. He is Berin Szoka, not Ben Szoka. The text has been corrected.