Saturday 12 January 2013 16.25 EST
The inspiring heroism of Aaron Swartz
The internet freedom activist committed suicide on Friday at age 26, but his life was driven by courage and passion
The internet activist Aaron Swartz, seen here in January 2009, has died at the age of 26. Photograph: Michael Francis Mcelroy/AP
Aaron Swartz, the computer programmer and internet freedom activist, committed suicide on Friday in New York at the age of 26. As the incredibly moving remembrances from his friends such as Cory Doctorow and Larry Lessig attest, he was unquestionably brilliant but also - like most everyone - a complex human being plagued by demons and flaws. For many reasons, I don't believe in whitewashing someone's life or beatifying them upon death. But, to me, much of Swartz's tragically short life was filled with acts that are genuinely and, in the most literal and noble sense, heroic. I think that's really worth thinking about today.
At the age of 14, Swartz played a key role in developing the RSS software that is still widely used to enable people to manage what they read on the internet. As a teenager, he also played a vital role in the creation of Reddit, the wildly popular social networking news site. When Conde Nast purchased Reddit, Swartz received a substantial sum of money at a very young age. He became something of a legend in the internet and programming world before he was 18. His path to internet mogul status and the great riches it entails was clear, easy and virtually guaranteed: a path which so many other young internet entrepreneurs have found irresistible, monomaniacally devoting themselves to making more and more money long after they have more than they could ever hope to spend.
But rather obviously, Swartz had little interest in devoting his life to his own material enrichment, despite how easy it would have been for him. As Lessig wrote: "Aaron had literally done nothing in his life 'to make money' . . . Aaron was always and only working for (at least his conception of) the public good."
Specifically, he committed himself to the causes in which he so passionately believed: internet freedom, civil liberties, making information and knowledge as available as possible. Here he is in his May, 2012 keynote address at the Freedom To Connect conference discussing the role he played in stopping SOPA, the movie-industry-demanded legislation that would have vested the government with dangerous censorship powers over the internet.
Critically, Swartz didn't commit himself to these causes merely by talking about them or advocating for them. He repeatedly sacrificed his own interests, even his liberty, in order to defend these values and challenge and subvert the most powerful factions that were their enemies. That's what makes him, in my view, so consummately heroic.
In 2008, Swartz targeted Pacer, the online service that provides access to court documents for a per-page fee. What offended Swartz and others was that people were forced to pay for access to public court documents that were created at public expense. Along with a friend, Swartz created a program to download millions of those documents and then, as Doctorow wrote, "spent a small fortune fetching a titanic amount of data and putting it into the public domain." For that act of civil disobedience, he was investigated and harassed by the FBI, but never charged.
But in July 2011, Swartz was arrested for allegedly targeting JSTOR, the online publishing company that digitizes and distributes scholarly articles written by academics and then sells them, often at a high price, to subscribers. As Maria Bustillos detailed, none of the money goes to the actual writers (usually professors) who wrote the scholarly articles - they are usually not paid for writing them - but instead goes to the publishers.
This system offended Swartz (and many other free-data activists) for two reasons: it charged large fees for access to these articles but did not compensate the authors, and worse, it ensured that huge numbers of people are denied access to the scholarship produced by America's colleges and universities. The indictment filed against Swartz alleged that he used his access as a Harvard fellow to the JSTOR system to download millions of articles with the intent to distribute them online for free; when he was detected and his access was cut off, the indictment claims he then trespassed into an MIT computer-wiring closet in order to physically download the data directly onto his laptop.
Swartz never distributed any of these downloaded articles. He never intended to profit even a single penny from anything he did, and never did profit in any way. He had every right to download the articles as an authorized JSTOR user; at worst, he intended to violate the company's "terms of service" by making the articles available to the public. Once arrested, he returned all copies of everything he downloaded and vowed not to use them. JSTOR told federal prosecutors that it had no intent to see him prosecuted, though MIT remained ambiguous about its wishes.
But federal prosecutors ignored the wishes of the alleged "victims". Led by a federal prosecutor in Boston notorious for her overzealous prosecutions, the DOJ threw the book at him, charging Swartz with multiple felonies which carried a total sentence of several decades in prison and $1 million in fines.
Swartz's trial on these criminal charges was scheduled to begin in two months. He adamantly refused to plead guilty to a felony because he did not want to spend the rest of his life as a convicted felon with all the stigma and rights-denials that entails. The criminal proceedings, as Lessig put it, already put him in a predicament where "his wealth [was] 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."
To say that the DOJ's treatment of Swartz was excessive and vindictive is an extreme understatement. When I wrote about Swartz's plight last August, I wrote that he was "being prosecuted by the DOJ with obscene over-zealousness". Timothy Lee wrote the definitive article in 2011 explaining why, even if all the allegations in the indictment are true, the only real crime committed by Swartz was basic trespassing, for which people are punished, at most, with 30 days in jail and a $100 fine, about which Lee wrote: "That seems about right: if he's going to serve prison time, it should be measured in days rather than years."
Nobody knows for sure why federal prosecutors decided to pursue Swartz so vindictively, as though he had committed some sort of major crime that deserved many years in prison and financial ruin. Some theorized that the DOJ hated him for his serial activism and civil disobedience. Others speculated that, as Doctorow put it, "the feds were chasing down all the Cambridge hackers who had any connection to Bradley Manning in the hopes of turning one of them."
I believe it has more to do with what I told the New York Times' Noam Cohen for an article he wrote on Swartz's case. Swartz's activism, I argued, was waged as part of one of the most vigorously contested battles - namely, the war over how the internet is used and who controls the information that flows on it - and that was his real crime in the eyes of the US government: challenging its authority and those of corporate factions to maintain a stranglehold on that information. In that above-referenced speech on SOPA, Swartz discussed the grave dangers to internet freedom and free expression and assembly posed by the government's efforts to control the internet with expansive interpretations of copyright law and other weapons to limit access to information.
That's a major part of why I consider him heroic. He wasn't merely sacrificing himself for a cause. It was a cause of supreme importance to people and movements around the world - internet freedom - and he did it by knowingly confronting the most powerful state and corporate factions because he concluded that was the only way to achieve these ends.
Suicide is an incredibly complicated phenomenon. I didn't know Swartz nearly well enough even to form an opinion about what drove him to do this; I had a handful of exchanges with him online in which we said nice things about each other's work and I truly admired him. I'm sure even his closest friends and family are struggling to understand exactly what caused him to defy his will to live by taking his own life.
But, despite his public and very sad writings about battling depression, it only stands to reason that a looming criminal trial that could send him to prison for decades played some role in this; even if it didn't, this persecution by the DOJ is an outrage and an offense against all things decent, for the reasons Lessig wrote today:
"Here is where we need a better sense of justice, and shame. For the outrageousness in this story is not just Aaron. It is also the absurdity of the prosecutor's behavior. From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. The 'property' Aaron had 'stolen', we were told, was worth 'millions of dollars' — with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime. But anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar. It was clear what this was not, yet our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed.
"A kid genius. A soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think? That person is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying. I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don't get both, you don't deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.
"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'."
Whatever else is true, Swartz was destroyed by a "justice" system that fully protects the most egregious criminals as long as they are members of or useful to the nation's most powerful factions, but punishes with incomparable mercilessness and harshness those who lack power and, most of all, those who challenge power.
Swartz knew all of this. But he forged ahead anyway. He could have easily opted for a life of great personal wealth, status, prestige and comfort. He chose instead to fight - selflessly, with conviction and purpose, and at great risk to himself - for noble causes to which he was passionately devoted. That, to me, isn't an example of heroism; it's the embodiment of it, its purest expression. It's the attribute our country has been most lacking.
I always found it genuinely inspiring to watch Swartz exude this courage and commitment at such a young age. His death had better prompt some serious examination of the DOJ's behavior - both in his case and its warped administration of justice generally. But his death will also hopefully strengthen the inspirational effects of thinking about and understanding the extraordinary acts he undertook in his short life.
From the official statement of Swartz's family:
"Aaron's death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts US Attorney's office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US 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. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community's most cherished principles."
This sort of unrestrained prosecutorial abuse is, unfortunately, far from uncommon. It usually destroys people without attention or notice. Let's hope - and work to ensure that - the attention generated by Swartz's case prompts some movement toward accountability and reform.
Building Better Internets
The Truth about Aaron Swartz’s “Crime”
I did not know Aaron Swartz, unless you count having copies of a person’s entire digital life on your forensics server as knowing him. I did once meet his father, an intelligent and dedicated man who was clearly pouring his life into defending his son. My deepest condolences go out to him and the rest of Aaron’s family during what must be the hardest time of their lives.
If the good that men do is oft interred with their bones, so be it, but in the meantime I feel a responsibility to correct some of the erroneous information being posted as comments to otherwise informative discussions at Reddit, Hacker News and Boing Boing. Apparently some people feel the need to self-aggrandize by opining on the guilt of the recently departed, and I wanted to take this chance to speak on behalf of a man who can no longer defend himself. I had hoped to ask Aaron to discuss these issues on the Defcon stage once he was acquitted, but now that he has passed it is important that his memory not be besmirched by the ignorant and uninformed. I have confirmed with Aaron’s attorneys that I am free to discuss these issues now that the criminal case is moot.
I was the expert witness on Aaron’s side of US vs Swartz, engaged by his attorneys last year to help prepare a defense for his April trial. Until Keker Van Nest called iSEC Partners I had very little knowledge of Aaron’s plight, and although we have spoken at or attended many of the same events we had never once met.
Should you doubt my neutrality, let me establish my bona fides. I have led the investigation of dozens of computer crimes, from Latvian hackers blackmailing a stock brokerage to Chinese government-backed attacks against dozens of American enterprises. I have investigated small insider violations of corporate policy to the theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and have responded to break-ins at social networks, e-tailers and large banks. While we are no stranger to pro bono work, having served as experts on EFF vs Sony BMG and Sony vs Hotz, our reports have also been used in the prosecution of at least a half dozen attackers. In short, I am no long-haired-hippy-anarchist who believes that anything goes on the Internet. I am much closer to the stereotypical capitalist-white-hat sellout that the antisec people like to rant about (and steal mail spools from) in the weeks before BlackHat.
I know a criminal hack when I see it, and Aaron’s downloading of journal articles from an unlocked closet is not an offense worth 35 years in jail.
MIT operates an extraordinarily open network. Very few campus networks offer you a routable public IP address via unauthenticated DHCP and then lack even basic controls to prevent abuse. Very few captured portals on wired networks allow registration by any vistor, nor can they be easily bypassed by just assigning yourself an IP address. In fact, in my 12 years of professional security work I have never seen a network this open.
In the spirit of the MIT ethos, the Institute runs this open, unmonitored and unrestricted network on purpose. Their head of network security admitted as much in an interview Aaron’s attorneys and I conducted in December. MIT is aware of the controls they could put in place to prevent what they consider abuse, such as downloading too many PDFs from one website or utilizing too much bandwidth, but they choose not to.
At the time of Aaron’s actions, the JSTOR website allowed an unlimited number of downloads by anybody on MIT’s 18.x Class-A network. The JSTOR application lacked even the most basic controls to prevent what they might consider abusive behavior, such as CAPTCHAs triggered on multiple downloads, requiring accounts for bulk downloads, or even the ability to pop a box and warn a repeat downloader.
Aaron did not “hack” the JSTOR website for all reasonable definitions of “hack”. Aaron wrote a handful of basic python scripts that first discovered the URLs of journal articles and then used curl to request them. Aaron did not use parameter tampering, break a CAPTCHA, or do anything more complicated than call a basic command line tool that downloads a file in the same manner as right-clicking and choosing “Save As” from your favorite browser.
Aaron did nothing to cover his tracks or hide his activity, as evidenced by his very verbose .bash_history, his uncleared browser history and lack of any encryption of the laptop he used to download these files. Changing one’s MAC address (which the government inaccurately identified as equivalent to a car’s VIN number) or putting a mailinator email address into a captured portal are not crimes. If they were, you could arrest half of the people who have ever used airport wifi.
The government provided no evidence that these downloads caused a negative effect on JSTOR or MIT, except due to silly overreactions such as turning off all of MIT’s JSTOR access due to downloads from a pretty easily identified user agent.
I cannot speak as to the criminal implications of accessing an unlocked closet on an open campus, one which was also used to store personal effects by a homeless man. I would note that trespassing charges were dropped against Aaron and were not part of the Federal case.
In short, Aaron Swartz was not the super hacker breathlessly described in the Government’s indictment and forensic reports, and his actions did not pose a real danger to JSTOR, MIT or the public. He was an intelligent young man who found a loophole that would allow him to download a lot of documents quickly. This loophole was created intentionally by MIT and JSTOR, and was codified contractually in the piles of paperwork turned over during discovery.
If I had taken the stand as planned and had been asked by the prosecutor whether Aaron’s actions were “wrong”, I would probably have replied that what Aaron did would better be described as “inconsiderate”. In the same way it is inconsiderate to write a check at the supermarket while a dozen people queue up behind you or to check out every book at the library needed for a History 101 paper. It is inconsiderate to download lots of files on shared wifi or to spider Wikipedia too quickly, but none of these actions should lead to a young person being hounded for years and haunted by the possibility of a 35 year sentence.
Professor Lessig will always write more eloquently than I can on prosecutorial discretion and responsibility, but I certainly agree that Aaron’s death demands a great deal of soul searching by the US Attorney who decided to massively overcharge this young man and the MIT administrators who decided to involve Federal law enforcement.
I cannot speak as to all of the problems that contributed to Aaron’s death, but I do strongly believe that he did not deserve the treatment he received while he was alive. It is incumbent on all of us to figure out how to create some positive change out of this unnecessary tragedy. I’ll write more on that later. First I need to spend some time hugging my kids.
Journal Archive Opens Up (Some)
January 9, 2013 - 3:00am | By Alexandra Tilsley
More than 700 publishers, in addition to the 76 that signed on initially, have agreed to make their journal content available to individual users through JSTOR’s Register & Read program, which launches in earnest today after the conclusion of a pilot that started last year.
The Register & Read program was designed to make access to JSTOR’s treasure trove of journal articles at least a little more open. While access to JSTOR’s full content is reserved for those with ties to libraries that purchase subscriptions, the Register & Read program lets anyone, university-affiliated or not, read -- but not download or copy -- up to three articles every two weeks, for free.
The only thing a user must hand over to gain access to Register & Read is personal information, including institutional affiliation and field of study. That information is shared with JSTOR and interested publishers and libraries. In many cases, it is the primary incentive used to persuade publishers to sign on to Register & Read.
“The fact that we’re able to gather data and help to understand who might be using the content and where interest might be can help [publishers] identify opportunities for building subscribers or membership or reaching new authors,” said Heidi McGregor, vice president of marketing and communications for Ithaka, the nonprofit organization that runs JSTOR.
“Libraries and publishers in the past have really defended people’s right to read without being traced and being held accountable for what it is they’re curious about,” said Barbara Fister, a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota and a blogger for Inside Higher Ed.
Still, Fister doesn’t think the brief form required to join Register & Read will stop many people.
Indeed, 150,000 users signed up for Register & Read during the pilot, though McGregor notes that number is only one out of every 75 people who landed on a JSTOR article since the program launched. Of those 150,000, 30 percent used the program more than once.
But more interestingly, perhaps, only 16 percent of those registered users are independent researchers, the primary intended audience for the project. Instead, most users have been students.
This could be because, as Fister suspects, an increasing number of students come across JSTOR content through Google rather than through their university’s search page, and it’s not always obvious that the article can be accessed free simply by looking it up through the library portal. But in some cases, according to McGregor, the students are viewing articles to which their university’s subscription does not include access. In that sense, the Register & Read program could supplement universities’ subscriptions, which include varying levels of access.
The chances of the Register & Read program replacing an institutional subscription, however, are slim, and McGregor is not at all worried about it. In fact, she hopes that through the program, JSTOR might be able to help libraries better understand their patrons’ needs, and perhaps persuade them to expand which subscriptions they purchase.
“Since we have institutional affiliation reported from users, we can go to libraries and say, ‘We’ve had 300 people on your campus read this or that,’ ” McGregor said.
Fister agrees that Register & Read will not soon replace university subscriptions because, she said, it is simply not sufficient. Still, she applauds the effort JSTOR is making to give everyone at least some access to content, and she said the fact that the pilot was successful is a positive sign.
“It’s great to learn that people really want to read this stuff,” Fister said. “That people who aren’t necessarily affiliated with institutions are curious about it and want to access it -- that’s great news for scholars.”
The pilot yielded good news for publishers, too. According to McGregor, about 60 percent of the journals in the pilot also sell single articles to individuals, but for those publishers, making content available for free through Register & Read did not lead to a drop in sales. And, McGregor notes, none of the publishers that participated in the pilot chose to opt out of the full program.
Though the program seems to be a step toward open access of scholarly materials, Timothy Vollmer, policy manager for Creative Commons, emphasized that it is simply that: an incremental step in the right direction.
“I wouldn’t necessarily term it ‘open access,’ but at the same time I realize that maybe they’re not in a position to release these things out into the wild,” he said.
True open-access material, according to Vollmer, is research that is licensed for fair use. Though Register & Read users can view an article for free, that doesn’t necessarily mean they can use it.
“If I want to use an article and pull out pieces and make a video, I would need to get permission,” Vollmer said. “Under the open-access framework, those rights are stated in advance.”
This is important, Vollmer said, for things like translations or data mining. For example, a researcher performing a computational analysis of a larger number of articles might not have the time or resources to seek permission to use each individual article, but under an open-content license, those rights are granted in advance -- though they would have to be granted by the publisher, not by JSTOR or organizations like it. And, he notes, chances are that most academics would want their research used in such a way.
"When we look at academic authors, their intention is to be read,” he said. “This stuff should be available as widely and as openly as possible.”
Fister agrees, though she said she’s not sure how to make that happen.
“[Register & Read] is better than nothing, and I understand the pickle they’re in, yet I just wish we could solve this a different way and somehow find a funding model that would free this body of scholarship,” she said. “I wish we could come up with a better plan, but I don’t know what that would be.”
Swartz spent the last two years fighting federal hacking charges. In July 2011, prosecutor Scott Garland working under U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, a politician with her eye on the governor's mansion, charged Swartz with four counts of felony misconduct -- charges that were deemed outrageous by internet experts who understood the case, and wholly unnecessary by the parties Swartz was accused of wronging.
Swartz repeatedly sought to reduce the charges to a level below felony status, but prosecutors pressed on, adding additional charges so that by September 2012 Swartz faced 13 felony counts and up to half a century in prison.
Swartz had long lived with depression and a host of physical ailments, which made his accomplishments that much more astonishing. Barely a teenager, he codeveloped the RSS feed, before becoming one of the earliest minds behind Reddit.
Ortiz's office declined to comment for this article. Late on Saturday, Swartz's family issued a statement mourning the loss of their loved one's "curiosity, creativity" and "commitment to social justice." They also put some of the blame for Swartz's death on federal prosecutors.
Lawyer: Politics driving prosecutor?
Saturday, December 8, 2012 | By Hillary Chabot / Boston Herald
A potential run for governor by U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz prompted a defense attorney in her high-profile Probation Department prosecution to raise questions about whether her political aspirations are driving the investigation.
John Amabile, the defense lawyer for former probation deputy William H. Burke III, looked askance at recent revelations that Gov. Deval Patrick has been talking up Ortiz on Beacon Hill.
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Here is where we need a better sense of justice, and shame. For the outrageousness in this story is not just Aaron. It is also the absurdity of the prosecutor’s behavior. From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. The “property” Aaron had “stolen,” we were told, was worth “millions of dollars” — with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime. But anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar. It was clear what this was not, yet our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed.
Aaron had literally done nothing in his life “to make money.” He was fortunate Reddit turned out as it did, but from his work building the RSS standard, to his work architecting Creative Commons, to his work liberating public records, to his work building a free public library, to his work supporting Change Congress/FixCongressFirst/Rootstrikers, and then Demand Progress, Aaron was always and only working for (at least his conception of) the public good. He was brilliant, and funny. A kid genius. A soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think? That person is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying. I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.
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.”
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