The news over the weekend that 26-year old Aaron Swartz had committed suicide has led to an avalanche of tributes and also debate about the principles that led to him facing a trial that could have resulted in a long prison term.
Aaron Swartz was an American computer programmer and activist with an impressive list of accomplishments:
Having started to write "serious programs" when he was 12, at 13 he was a winner of the ArsDigita Prize, a competition for young people who created "useful, educational, and collaborative" non-commercial Web sites Aged 14 he contributed to the RSS 1.0 specification and later contributed to the development of Lawrence Lessig's Creative Commons copyright system.
Swartz gained admission to Stanford University, but left after a year and founded the software company Infogami, a startup that was funded by Y Combinator's first Summer Founders Program. The Infogami wiki platform merged with Reddit in 2005 and when Reddit was sold to Conde Nast Swartz initially moved with it to San Francisco but was asked to resign the following year.
Swartz completed a fellowship at Harvard’s Ethics Center Lab on Institutional Corruption and was an activist for several causes. In 2011 he co-founded the DemandProgress organization to fight for Internet freedom and openness and was involved in halting the US government's Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) but the issue that has come to the fore as result of his tragic suicide is that of public access to information and the injustice of public information being locked behind paywalls.
His belief, as set out in the Gueriilla Open Access Manifesto was that people with privileged access to resources such as academic research papers have a moral imperative to copy and share information.
Swartz put this principles into practice and the circumstances of his death suggest that it was linked to the fact he was being prosecuted for activities he saw are entirely justifiable but that that were deemed theft on the part of the US Attorney's Office.
According to the statement issued by his 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 U.S. 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.
The alleged crime referred to in the statement took place in 2010 when Swartz allegedly stole about 4.8 million articles from the JSTOR journal archive via the MIT network, with the aim of making them freely available online. JSTOR declined to press charges after recovering its content from Swartz, but a criminal case had been initiated and was still being pursued by the U.S. Attorney's Office, with another hearing scheduled for April 2013 in which he faced thirteen charges with the potential penalty of a $1 million fine and up to 50 years imprisonment.
A statement from JSTOR records its condolences while an email from MIT's president L. Rafael Reif expresses both sadness and regret, saying:
It pains me to think that MIT played any role in the series of events that have ended in tragedy.
Reif has appointed computer science professor Hal Abelson to:
“lead a thorough analysis of MIT’s involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in fall 2010 up to the present. I have asked that this analysis describe the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took.”
The JSTOR incident was not Swartz only one that attracted the notice of the authorities. He had previously succeeded in sharing public documents when in 2008, the federal court system briefly allowed free access to court records which were normally charged at the rate of eight cents per page. using a small Perl script that cycled sequentially through case numbers, requesting a new document from Pacer every three seconds, and uploading it to the cloud. Swartz downloaded nearly 20 million pages of public court documents, which are now available for free on the RECAP Internet archive.
It is speculated that one reason why the US criminal justice system was so keen to prosecute the case that JSTOR had dropped was related to the fact that it had suffered this earlier hack.
Tributes from people who knew Aaron are collected on the Remember Aaron Swartz site and there has already been a large response to calls to honor his memory by supporting the Open Science movement to make scientific research, data and dissemination accessible.
A petition calling on President Obama to issue a posthumous pardon has been initated suggesting that this will send a strong message about the improportionality with which he was prosecuted has been initiated on the White House We the People website. Another petition on the same site that calls on the administration to " Remove United States District Attorney Carmen Ortiz from office for overreach in the case of Aaron Swartz" has already reached its target - but reamins open for more signatures.