On Friday, January 11, 2013, 26-year-old visionary technologist and social activist Aaron Swartz hanged himself in New York City. A passionate advocate for making access to online information as widespread as possible, Swartz was grappling with the fallout from his efforts to do just that.
Two years before Swartz ended his life, he was arrested by police from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the City of Cambridge, Mass., police for breaking and entering into an MIT storage closet. In the closet, Swartz had stashed an Acer laptop he had programmed to download in bulk millions of scholarly articles from JSTOR, a non-profit database that provides access to the articles for academic libraries. At the time, articles on JSTOR were locked behind a paywall for non-academics who wished to access them through their own computers. Swartz aimed to make them available, free of charge, to anyone who wanted to read them.
At the time of his arrest, an investigation of Swartz’s MIT/JSTOR action was already underway, and two days earlier, the Secret Service’s online crime division assumed control of the probe. The Secret Service routinely conducts complex computer crime investigations; its involvement signaled the treatment of this as a major crime, not a caper. Six months later, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz charged Swartz with a four-count indictment.
To those who knew Swartz’ ethic, that indictment already seemed like overkill, essentially labeling an effort to share information as wire and computer fraud. But then last year, Ortiz multiplied each of the main charges, turning the same underlying actions into a 13-count indictment that threatened Swartz with a 35-year sentence.
Swartz had long struggled with depression that may have contributed to his suicide. But his family and associates have also blamed the government’s conduct in prosecuting Swartz. A statement issued by the family the day after Swartz’s suicide charges that “the U.S. Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims.”
And therein lies the almost incomprehensible legal background to this tragedy. Both before and after his arrest, Swartz had dedicated much of his life to using the internet to making information freely accessible. His goal here — the government claims he intended to publish the journals online, but made no claim he wanted to profit off of them — would have put academic research, much of it funded by federal grants, in the hands of the people who paid for it.