Remembering Aaron Swartz

I didn’t know too much about Aaron Swartz before news of his death started making waves on the Internet in January. At most, a half-realised recognition of a guy that I’d heard had been involved in the grassroots campaign to challenge the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). In the hours that followed first reports that 26-year-old Aaron had taken his own life, like many people following the news unfolding, I became much more familiar with the life and work of a seemingly tenacious young guy involved in a great number of game-changing portfolio, largely focusing on freedom of information and information culture. Many reports focused almost entirely on Aaron as a freedom of information activist, or hacker, but if we look beyond this narrow scope we can catch a glimpse of someone whose life and work should offer much more to remember and inspire.

In the course of his short life, Aaron was involved in portfolio including the development of the RSS syndication standard, the initial architecture of the Creative Commons licensing standard, Open Library, the creation of Reddit, the grassroots movement that prevented the passing of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the founding of progressive policy campaign group Demand Progress. More than this now well-known list of achievements, Aaron was also interested in healthcare, financial corruption, and at the time of his death was working on portfolio for various causes, the drug war amongst them. Terms like ‘copyfighter’ don't seem to an adequate way to define or capture a life, particularly in light of this broad and ambitious stream of political and technological engagement. As David Weinberger, Senior Researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center, would put it: “Aaron was not a hacker. He was a builder.”

Ultimately it was freedom of information activism that brought the full force of federal prosecutors against Aaron, setting the tone for the sequence of events that would culminate in his death. In 2011 Aaron was arrested over allegations that he downloaded millions of academic articles from the subscription-based document storage service JSTOR, supposedly as part of a wider effort to make these documents freely available. Many free-data activists had been concerned with the JSTOR system as it charged large fees for access to articles – whilst not compensating the authors – meaning that a great number of people were denied access to the resource. The allegations against Aaron came three years after a similar incident in which he created a program to download millions of paid-for court documents and put them into the public domain. This prompted an investigation by the FBI, but no charges were brought forward.

That all changed after the JSTOR allegations, when federal prosecutors threatened Aaron with decades of jail time, fines of up to $1m and numerous felony counts. In an article following the arrest, Timothy Lee highlighted the extent of prosecutorial overreach in the case, claiming that the only real crime committed by Swartz was a kind of ‘digital trespassing’ for which any prison sentence should be measured in days rather than years. Demand Progress echoed these concerns, likening the judicial situation to an attempt to send someone to jail for allegedly checking too many books out of a library.

In the days following Aaron’s death, the analysis of the situation intensified as an increasing number of journalists, bloggers and activists made greater efforts to examine what many now see as an instance of prosecutorial abuse. An official statement from the Swartz family claimed Aaron’s death was more than a personal tragedy, stating: “It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.” Alex Stamos, the expert witness in the case, leant further independent credence to this emerging narrative, with claims that the office of US Attorney Carmen Ortiz had decided to “massively overcharge” for the offence in question. He stated: “I know a criminal hack when I see it, and Aaron’s downloading of journal articles from an unlocked closet is not an offence worth 35 years in jail.”

After news broke of Aaron’s suicide, a report in the Wall Street Journal revealed that federal prosecutors had only recently rejected a plea bargain offer from the defence lawyers that would have taken prison time out of the sentence. Prosecutors responded with an increased demand for Aaron to plead guilty to every count, imposing a trial later in the year that would carry a bumped-up total of 15 felony counts as well as the virtual inevitability of a lengthy prison sentence if he was convicted. Just two days after this meeting, Aaron took his own life.

The scrutiny of federal prosecutors in the wake of Aaron’s death has set in motion an investigation at the federal level. In the weeks ahead, representatives of the US House Oversight Committee (HOC) are expected to meet with the Department of Justice as part of an examination into whether the extent of criminal charges and punishment pursued by prosecutors was as inappropriate as many now claim, and whether factors relating to Aaron’s political activity also motivated prosecutorial overreach. In particular, the HOC is asking whether prosecutors had been considering Aaron’s opposition to SOPA or his association with related advocacy groups when considering the charges against him.

The importance of further scrutiny in the broader area of prosecutorial abuse cannot be understated. Ongoing examination of federal behaviour towards US citizens today has resulted in many putting forward arguments that the state is using its stockpile of judicial tools to come down hard on political activists.* Recent cases include the detainment of four activists resisting a Grand Jury investigation into anarchist organisers. The Grand Jury system, a component of the judicial apparatus that has been abolished in UK courts, can reduce the constitutional rights of the accused, including a denial to legal counsel and a denial of the right to plead the fifth amendment to avoid self-incrimination. In recent years, the US Grand Jury has been accused of being used as a tool for intimidation. Many people hope that the increased attention and scrutiny of such judicial processes in the aftermath of Aaron’s death will lead to challenges to prosecutorial abuses in the courts, but there is also much more to remember in Aaron.

I cannot speak to any effect in regards to Aaron’s character, but the evidence from his prolific work and portfolio speaks to a painstaking attention to detail and analysis of systems, with subsequent efforts to make contextual improvements. As his friend Matt Stoller would write of him, “He analysed money. He analysed corruption,” adding, “He didn’t throw up his hands lazily and curse at corruption, he spent enormous amounts of time and energy learning about and working the political system.” It was a method of engagement that cut so deep in its analysis, almost as if Aaron was searching for the equivalent of a mathematical ‘proof’ at the heart of his search for justice. This method saw Aaron dedicate himself, and his life, to positive and progressive outcomes in areas including digital information, politics, the legal system, open access and scholarship.

In the coming months, the immediate response from Aaron's death will be an examination of judicial abuses. It is hoped that the processes beginning with the HOC examination into the Department of Justice will employ the same depth and spirit of analysis that defined Aaron’s work. Looking forward, there is also more to remember and learn from Aaron’s life, a way to engage that is regrettably absent from popular political engagement and activist organising; the effort to truly analyse the systems that give rise to issues of our immediate social and political concern, and the subsequent drive to engage with these systems, on the contextual level, with the same tenacity and selflessness that defined Aaron’s efforts and victories.

*Postscript: this article was written in January 2013, following news of Aaron's death. I had spent a couple of months before the time of writing traveling around the US, often among activists facing prosecution, and within a network of many others who were facing what appeared at that time to be extraordinary judicial measures such as Grand Jury trials. While the emphasis of the text is on the life and work of Aaron and, in particular, the contrast in his approach as set against much of the political activism I could see at this time, in retrospect the treatment of incarceration here appears hugely lacking. As prosecutorial overreach is foregrounded as the critical factor at the heart of this story, what the article fails to acknowledge is the everyday of state violence, persecution and incarceration experienced more broadly among those racialised and facing other forms of discrimination. This point requires emphasis in both the US and here in the UK, where grassroots organisations including United Families and Friends Campaign continue to fight for and seek support and justice for those affected by deaths in police custody and other forms of incarceration.