Some Thoughts On Aaron Swartz
from the a-loss dept
This past weekend has, tragically, been way too much about death for me. On Friday evening I found out that a close relative had just passed away, and had just spent some time talking to other family members, crying, figuring out how I was going to fly across the country for a funeral, etc. I’d finally had enough and was about to shut down and go to sleep, when an email popped up from a friend telling me that Aaron Swartz had killed himself. And, suddenly, there was more death to think about in a very different way. The past few days I’ve been thinking a lot about both my relative and Aaron — two very different people who probably only share the end date of their lives. I’m mourning them both, but since Aaron was a public figure and relevant to what we write about here, I wanted to write something about him, even as the mourning sector of my brain tries to figure out how you grieve for multiple people at the same time.
I did not know Aaron all that well, but I did know him. I’ve been reading many of the stories from those who did know him quite well, and it’s amazingly touching. But I wanted to share my short story, because it’s what keeps running through my mind. In my head, there are a few key moments that I keep thinking about concerning Aaron. One is the first time I met him. I can’t place the exact time, but I think it was a decade ago at a conference in Santa Clara (I remember the hotel well). He was sitting at a table, and wow, did he look young. Very much like the kid in this photo by Richard Gibson, that Aaron posted to his own website, showing himself talking to Larry Lessig back in 2002 — at the age of 15.
I started reading his blog soon after that, which was an interesting mix of content from technical to political to philosophical to personal. When he started college, at Stanford, something about his blog posts were both captivating and horrifying at the same time — describing in vivid details the kinds of thoughts many of us have when we go to college for the first time and are trying to figure out how and where we fit into the world. What struck me as so odd was that because of everything else he had done, my mind just defaulted to assuming that he was completely mature in all aspects of his life. But he was still just a kid.
The blog post I most remember came maybe a month or so after he had gotten to Stanford, and it involved him telling the story — again, in both captivating and horrifying detail — about him hooking up with a girl. My memory is fuzzy at this point — and a very cursory spin through his blog doesn’t turn up the post — but I remember her joking about him being famous, which lead to the usual sort of awkwardness that comes with early makeout sessions, but all described in detail. I also vaguely remember some sort of followup, indicating that the girl was mortified about the public reporting on their rendezvous.
It was Aaron, sorting out his life in public. That may be more common these days, but it was certainly relatively new back then, and it was so disjointed from the “profesional” Aaron, who had already accomplished so much. I kept thinking… “that’s right, he’s just a kid.”
But the kid grew up. He left Stanford, he joined the first YCombinator class, he did a startup that didn’t go far, but which eventually led him to joining the early Reddit team. Here and there, he kept popping up, always doing something interesting. The next time I came across him was in 2009, when the FBI investigated him for daring to download a ton of public domain court documents from PACER. While PACER tries to charge $0.10/page (at the time it was $0.08) the documents are still public domain. Many people find this annoying — and Aaron was a true crusader for the right to information. So when he found out that some libraries were experimenting with free PACER access as a trial, he went to one, set up a perl script and had it cycle through tons of documents, downloading them for him to collect. Eventually, the FBI realized it had no case: freely offered access to public domain material is legal to use.
Obviously, that foreshadowed his more recent legal troubles.
Over the last couple years, Aaron and I emailed occasionally. He and I were two of the only people (along with Senator Wyden) who seemed really concerned about the predecessor to SOPA/PIPA called COICA, and he had talked to me about helping get more people aware of the problems of the bill. And then, when SOPA/PIPA came along, we were in touch over the efforts against that (along with many others as well). But I also remember the last two times I heard from Aaron. Last summer, out of the blue, he emailed me to say that he’d run across a minor (but annoying) technical error on Techdirt, and suggested how to fix it. And then, in October, when he finally got his FOIA request returned concerning ICE’s domain seizures, he emailed to let me know. I never communicated with him directly about his own ongoing case, but I remember being both surprised and impressed (and then less surprised once I thought about it) that he’d continued to push forward on his activist causes, even while facing trial for one of them.
The only time I ever met Aaron in person was that one time, a decade ago. I probably emailed with him less than 100 times — with most of those coming over the past couple of years. I always knew he was complex — wise way beyond his years in some things, and still figuring out other things at the same time. But the news of his suicide definitely took me by surprise, though others have pointed out that he’s hinted at such things in the past.
I will also say that I know there’s been a rush to “blame” the lawsuit against him on this. In fact, our September post detailing the new charges against him got a tremendous amount of traffic over the weekend. Aaron’s own family has stated:
“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 U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.”
Just as I was hesitant to blame Lori Drew or Dharun Ravi for actions that were connected to later suicides of people they had taunted, it still feels wrong to say that the case itself led to his suicide, without more details. That said, as Tim Lee noted, knowing Aaron, he would be the first in line to suggest the value of using the circumstances of his own death to get reform of the massively broken Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), which he was charged under.
Again, as detailed in our earlier post, as well as an earlier analysis, the case against him was a joke: it involved massive charges for downloading information that was made freely available to the campus network he was on. At best, we could have seen a trespassing citation — but instead he was facing decades in jail and seven figure fines. For accessing information. It really showed a case where the feds seemed to be going after Aaron because they didn’t like him — and, as we’ve seen, when the feds don’t like you, they can make your life hell. JSTOR — the supposedly “harmed” party — wanted nothing to do with the case. The feds just seemed to want to make an example out of Aaron… for the “crime” of wanting access to knowledge. It would be great to see an Aaron Swartz Act to reform the worst parts of the CFAA. It might not be his biggest legacy, but it would be a good one to add to a long list.
Larry Lessig — who knows more about both Aaron and the case against him than most people — has a tremendously powerful post calling out the federal government (and MIT) for their actions in the case against Aaron, suggesting that the feds offered up a plea deal, but Aaron would not take anything that would have him described as a felon. More is going to come out on what happened, I’m sure, and the government is not going to look good.
If you want to read more thoughts on Aaron from people who knew him much better than I, I suggest you read the posts by Cory Doctorow and Danny O’Brien. Also, Mathew Ingram has been curating a list of some of the more interesting remembrances — and a tumblr for Remember Aaron Swartz is filling up with wonderful remembrances.
There are so many sad things about this story, but the biggest is the most obvious: knowing just how much Aaron had accomplished already in his short life, combined with his drive and determination, we’ll now never know how much more he would have accomplished down the road — and every single one of us will lead less fulfilling lives because of that loss. He was still just a kid… a kid who had already accomplished amazing things.
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