Department of Justice

Reddit Co-Founder, Open Info Activist Bullied by DOJ Commits Suicide

Faced federal charges for downloading academic journal records at MIT

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Aaron Swartz

If you're using an RSS feed to help keep track of Hit & Run blog posts or the Reason 24/7 news feed, Aaron Swartz gets some of the credit. The young programmer helped developed them.

He committed suicide Friday at the young age of 26. Via Wired:

When he was a 14 years old, Aaron helped develop the RSS standard; he went on to found Infogami, which became part of Reddit. But more than anything Aaron was a coder with a conscience: a tireless and talented hacker who poured his energy into issues like network neutrality, copyright reform and information freedom.  Among countless causes, he worked with Larry Lessig at the launch of the Creative Commons, architected the Internet Archive's free public catalog of books, OpenLibrary.org, and in 2010 founded Demand Progress, a non-profit group that helped drive successful grassroots opposition to SOPA last year.

"Aaron was steadfast in his dedication to building a better and open world," writes Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle. "He is among the best spirits of the Internet generation. I am crushed by his loss, but will continue to be enlightened by his work and dedication."

Swartz was a victim of bullying. Not from jocks of frat boys targeting a brilliant tech nerd for being too smart. Rather, he was being harassed by the government – the Department of Justice specifically – for his activism in trying to make academic journals and public court records freely available online:

JSTOR provides searchable, digitized copies of academic journals online. MIT had a subscription to the database, so Aaron brought a laptop onto MIT's campus, plugged it into the student network and ran a script called keepgrabbing.py that aggressively — and at times disruptively — downloaded one article after another. When MIT tried to block the downloads, a cat-and-mouse game ensued, culminating in Swartz entering a networking closet on the campus, secretly wiring up an Acer laptop to the network, and leaving it there hidden under a box. A member of MIT's tech staff discovered it, and Aaron was arrested by campus police when he returned to pick up the machine.

The JSTOR hack was not Aaron's first experiment in liberating costly public documents. In 2008, the federal court system briefly allowed free access to its court records system, Pacer, which normally charged the public eight cents per page. The free access was only available from computers at 17 libraries across the country, so Aaron went to one of them and installed a small PERL script he had written that cycled sequentially through case numbers, requesting a new document from Pacer every three seconds, and uploading it to the cloud. Aaron pulled nearly 20 million pages of public court documents, which are now available for free on the Internet Archive.

Swartz did not profit from these activities whatsoever and JSTOR reportedly did not pursue any sort of justice for his intrusive but ultimately harmless hack. Nevertheless, federal prosecutors went after him, charging him with 13 federal counts. A trial was set for April. Alex Stamos was helping as an expert to prepare Swartz's defense – Swartz faced the possibility of 35 years in prison – and details here the absurdity of the intensity of the DOJ's efforts against the young man:

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.

In June, I wrote about efforts by activists to open access to government-funded academic research.  They filed a petition at the White House's "We the People" site. It received more than 50,000 signatures, twice the threshold needed to get a response from the administration.

This past week, the White House responded to recent trollish petitions about seceding from the union, deporting Piers Morgan, and building a Death Star. Yet it still has not responded to the open access petition.