RIP, Aaron Swartz

From the NYTimes:

Aaron Swartz, a wizardly programmer who as a teenager helped develop code that delivered ever-changing Web content to users and who later became a steadfast crusader to make that information freely available, was found dead on Friday in his New York apartment…

At 14, Mr. Swartz helped create RSS, the nearly ubiquitous tool that allows users to subscribe to online information. He later became an Internet folk hero, pushing to make many Web files free and open to the public. But in July 2011, he was indicted on federal charges of gaining illegal access to JSTOR, a subscription-only service for distributing scientific and literary journals, and downloading 4.8 million articles and documents, nearly the entire library.

Charges in the case, including wire fraud and computer fraud, were pending at the time of Mr. Swartz’s death, carrying potential penalties of up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines.

“Aaron built surprising new things that changed the flow of information around the world,” said Susan Crawford, a professor at the Cardozo School of Law in New York who served in the Obama administration as a technology adviser. She called Mr. Swartz “a complicated prodigy” and said “graybeards approached him with awe.” …

There’s much more information at BoingBoing, including Corey Doctorow’s memorial:

… The post-Reddit era in Aaron’s life was really his coming of age. His stunts were breathtaking. At one point, he singlehandedly liberated 20 percent of US law. PACER, the system that gives Americans access to their own (public domain) case-law, charged a fee for each such access. After activists built RECAP (which allowed its users to put any caselaw they paid for into a free/public repository), Aaron spent a small fortune fetching a titanic amount of data and putting it into the public domain. The feds hated this. They smeared him, the FBI investigated him, and for a while, it looked like he’d be on the pointy end of some bad legal stuff, but he escaped it all, and emerged triumphant.

He also founded a group called DemandProgress, which used his technological savvy, money and passion to leverage victories in huge public policy fights. DemandProgress’s work was one of the decisive factors in last year’s victory over SOPA/PIPA, and that was only the start of his ambition…

Somewhere in there, Aaron’s recklessness put him right in harm’s way. Aaron snuck into MIT and planted a laptop in a utility closet, used it to download a lot of journal articles (many in the public domain), and then snuck in and retrieved it. This sort of thing is pretty par for the course around MIT, and though Aaron wasn’t an MIT student, he was a fixture in the Cambridge hacker scene, and associated with Harvard, and generally part of that gang, and Aaron hadn’t done anything with the articles (yet), so it seemed likely that it would just fizzle out.

Instead, they threw the book at him. Even though MIT and JSTOR (the journal publisher) backed down, the prosecution kept on. I heard lots of theories: the feds who’d tried unsuccessfully to nail him for the PACER/RECAP stunt had a serious hate-on for him; the feds were chasing down all the Cambridge hackers who had any connection to Bradley Manning in the hopes of turning one of them, and other, less credible theories. A couple of lawyers close to the case told me that they thought Aaron would go to jail.

This morning, a lot of people are speculating that Aaron killed himself because he was worried about doing time. That might be so. Imprisonment is one of my most visceral terrors, and it’s at least credible that fear of losing his liberty, of being subjected to violence (and perhaps sexual violence) in prison, was what drove Aaron to take this step.

But Aaron was also a person who’d had problems with depression for many years. He’d written about the subject publicly, and talked about it with his friends.

I don’t know if it’s productive to speculate about that, but here’s a thing that I do wonder about this morning, and that I hope you’ll think about, too. I don’t know for sure whether Aaron understood that any of us, any of his friends, would have taken a call from him at any hour of the day or night. I don’t know if he understood that wherever he was, there were people who cared about him, who admired him, who would get on a plane or a bus or on a video-call and talk to him.

Because whatever problems Aaron was facing, killing himself didn’t solve them. Whatever problems Aaron was facing, they will go unsolved forever. If he was lonely, he will never again be embraced by his friends. If he was despairing of the fight, he will never again rally his comrades with brilliant strategies and leadership. If he was sorrowing, he will never again be lifted from it.

Depression strikes so many of us. I’ve struggled with it, been so low I couldn’t see the sky, and found my way back again, though I never thought I would. Talking to people, doing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, seeking out a counsellor or a Samaritan — all of these have a chance of bringing you back from those depths. Where there’s life, there’s hope. Living people can change things, dead people cannot.

From Tim Lee, at the Washington Post:

Harvard law professor Larry Lessig was a friend and mentor to Swartz. In a Saturday blog post, Lessig reported that the costs of his defense were close to depleting Swartz’s financial resources. Lessig is in a position to know; his wife started a legal defense fund for Swartz last September. Lessig says Swartz was “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.”

As I said at the time of Swartz’s arrest, his actions were foolish and some punishment was probably appropriate. But he probably shouldn’t have been the subject of a criminal indictment and he certainly shouldn’t have faced felony charges.

“It is no accident that Silicon Valley is in America, and not France, or Germany, or England, or Japan,” Graham wrote. “In those countries, people color inside the lines.” The article is accompanied by a picture of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, prior to the founding of Apple, experimenting with a “blue box,” a device that tricks the phone system into allowing free phone calls. Wozniak says he once used a blue box to call the Pope…

At the end of the Washington Post‘s obituary:

JSTOR did not press charges once it reclaimed the articles from Swartz, and some legal experts considered the case unfounded, saying that MIT allows guests access to the articles and Swartz, a fellow at Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics, was a guest.

Criticizing the government’s actions in the pending prosecution, Harvard law professor and Safra Center faculty director Lawrence Lessig called himself a friend of Swartz’s and wrote Saturday that “we need a better sense of justice. … The question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a ‘felon.’”

JSTOR announced this week that it would make “more than 4.5 million articles” publicly available for free.

60 replies
  1. 1
    Cowbelle says:

    There’s a cool blog called Balloon Juice that you might want to read. Apparently they post about these kinds of topics.

  2. 2
    Ramalama says:

    Annie Laurie, you really want to go there when another thread just about exhausted itself with lots of yelling about this very guy? Or is the term ‘yellery’?

  3. 3
    NotMax says:

    Déjà vu is like so 20th century.

  4. 4
    Anne Laurie says:

    @Cowbelle: There were six or seven separate obituaries here for Steve Jobs.

    I figured Tom did the short, allusive, instant version earlier, but I wanted to add moar datapoints.

  5. 5
    arguingwithsignposts says:

    I check BJ this morning and had to make sure I had refreshed my browser. I read the thread yesterday and just have to say that whatever anyone thinks about the guy, 26 year old suicide is way too young to die. Such a waste of potential.

  6. 6
    Cowbelle says:

    “It is no accident that Silicon Valley is in America, and not France, or Germany, or England, or Japan,” Graham wrote. “In those countries, people color inside the lines.”

    Rah, more unsupportable American exceptionalism.

  7. 7
    Raven says:

    @Cowbelle: Is it hard to be such a douche bag this early in the day?

  8. 8
    Cowbelle says:

    @Raven: What’s douchebaggy about what I said? In the middle of the obit for the guy, random slams on other countries for no reason.

  9. 9
    Raven says:

    @Cowbelle: After you lead of bitching about the topic.

  10. 10
    Ramalama says:

    OK I’ll bite.

    Lots of comments were posted about Swartz’s mental illness.

    A friend of his commented on facebook that he did not think Swartz’s early bouts with depression were out of control. He actually thought mental illness was not an issue any longer, because when the friend wanted to talk about his own experience with crushing depression, Swartz sort of shrugged it off. The friend thought that it did not loom large in Swartz’s life.

    Other thread comments disparaged Swartz for not getting his mental illness taken care of.

    Unfortunately there’s no mental illness pill to take. It can take years for someone to get the right treatment, through trial and error, and even then, after all that, the person gets older, things change and the treatment(s) need to be adjusted.

    Anyone facing a 35 year prison sentence, even a one month prison sentence (recall if you will Paris Hilton having her complete breakdown after one day?) in America? Where there’s no protection against bodily harm when you’re in the care of the government? Wouldn’t you feel like there was no way out?

  11. 11
    Xenos says:

    @Ramalama: That last thread was such a mess it is better to just start over, n’est-ce pas?

  12. 12
    Baud says:

    OT: Just saw on CNN that southern Florida literally has their own Whacking Day because of a python explosion there.

    Art becomes life yet again.

  13. 13
    Gex says:

    OT: I am having a really rough time today. Yesterday’s setbacks with the GF were hard. This whole hospitalization that’s been going on for 11 days has been hard. This whole cancer thing that has been going on for 5 months has been hard. All made worse because, in the wee hours of the morning, I’m thinking about the back story to all this. Wanted to emo post this to Facebook, but I wouldn’t ever put this out there in front of her friends.

    If you guys only knew. Kate’s married to comedy, not me. The way she treated me this last year in particular and in the comedy years in general, she doesn’t deserve this.

    The people she ditched me for on the night we scheduled our anniversary celebration should be here.

    Or the people she could drag herself out to spend time with last summer when she couldn’t get herself to the OB/GYN.

    The people she deemed worth it to swim with that didn’t include me.

    One night she asked me to see a show with her when she wasn’t feeling well and no one else was going. Turned out a comic friend was there and they just talked comedy over my head, literally, when I sat down. That comic should be sitting here, not me.

    When she said to my face that she’s fighting this for comedy and not for me, I should have told her to get comedy to work the job that pays her insurance, to take her to daily treatments, and to wait on her hand and foot for months. Comedy should be camped out in this hospital room.

    I’ve basically been alone since comedy. I’ve had to deal with her having a problem with me having a problem with how she gives everything to comedy. I should stop being such a sucker. But there’s nothing else to do until I get her through this. FML.

    I’m having a really shitty morning.

  14. 14
    Elizabelle says:

    Very sorry about Mr. Swartz’s loss. All that pain and lost potential.

    This is not the thread I want to see first thing Sunday, though.

    Can we have a fresh one?

    PS: good morning, all.

  15. 15
    Elizabelle says:


    I’d be all for whacking pythons.

    They don’t belong there, and are destroying the animal population that does.

    Hear it’s not that easy to find a python, though, big as they grow.

    I vote for a python-whacking thread.

    That goes well with coffee.

  16. 16
    Elizabelle says:


    Wow. Hugs.

    Your saga sounds like an idea for a Steve Martin short story, though. Comedy done him wrong. Comedy, the third party in a split, on the witness stand. Comedy, always there to take up the slack. Where the big C is Comedy, and it’s more threatening to the marriage than sickness.

    There is no payback like literary payback.

  17. 17
    Gex says:

    @Elizabelle: Don’t need payback. Just need this to stop.

  18. 18
    Mino says:

    US Attorney Carmen Ortega learned her prosecutorial tricks from Ken Starr. I think that is when I had my eyes opened to the lawlessness of prosecutors.

  19. 19
    arguingwithsignposts says:

    @Gex: very sorry indeed to hear your story. May you find peace somehow. My thoughts are with you.

  20. 20
    SiubhanDuinne says:


    Carmen Ortiz, not Carmen Ortega. Googling “Carmen Ortega” is NSFW. Thank goodness it’s a lazy Sunday morning and I’m not at work.

  21. 21
    Ramalama says:

    @Xenos: Je pense que oui!

  22. 22
    Ramalama says:

    @SiubhanDuinne: For some reason I can’t get the theme song to “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego” out of my head now.

  23. 23
    Elizabelle says:


    Is there a trusted friend who could talk to her? Maybe that will help your message get through, hearing it from a third party. That the illness and separation by comedy anguish you?

    The comedy sounds like an escape hatch from the illness. You have to see to what extent it’s an escape from the marriage too (or at least the recent dynamics, dealing with the illness), and how that can be bridged.

    Sending you best wishes.

  24. 24
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @Gex: I am so terribly sorry that you’re going through this, and I’m sure the unfairness of the backstory looms particularly large right now. I hope the worst is over soon, and you and Kate can sort this out when she’s physically stronger.

  25. 25
    Gex says:

    @Elizabelle: The comedy came first. That had been going on for some time. It became an acute problem when illness restricted her energies to the point where *everything* not comedy fell to the wayside.

    She’s far too ill for me to even consider broaching difficult issues. I’m not sure how many more setbacks we can incur without this becoming more seriously life threatening at this point. (She’s had a bad chemo response and is hospitalized with numerous infections.)

    It really is a giant shit show over here. I need to have my moments where I’m mad/sad about that back story. But then I have to get back to dealing with the present. Someday soon I hope to be able to address these issues.

    It’s just so very hard right now.

  26. 26


    I’ve been reading your posts and sending you good thoughts, but haven’t responded before now because I’m not sure what to say. I’m still not, because I keep thinking of good karma that you’re storing up somehow and other shit that sounds good but doesn’t help…

    All I’ve got is that you are a good person, and seem to be strong enough to do what needs to be done. Keep telling us what’s happening, keep venting on here as much as you need, and if there is anything we can do to help, you can email me (or Anne Laurie or any other front pager) and we will rally the BJ minions and get it done.

    Stay strong.

  27. 27
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    Another RIP that should be front-paged on every progressive blog and every single news outlet in the country: the great journalist/editor and civil rights champion Eugene Patterson is dead at 89.. He was editor of the then Atlanta Constitution when I moved here (for the first time) in the turbulent early 1960s. Desegregation was less ugly in Atlanta than it was in many other Southern cities in large measure because of him. A great man who is, sadly, almost forgotten today. RIP, Mr. Patterson.

  28. 28
    JPL says:

    @Gex: Please continue updating us. I’m so sorry that you are going through this and I’m sorry for Kate.

  29. 29
    Elizabelle says:


    I feel for you.

    And listen to “arguing” and Sarah P&T.

    Wish we all at BJ could be in your living room drinking coffee with you right now, and how horrifying is that prospect?

    ETA: coffee swilling and listening to you! Listening, listening.

  30. 30
    JPL says:

    @SiubhanDuinne: Although it is on the front page of, it’s not highlighted. You have to search for the article. His story reminds me of Atticus Finch. Words are powerful.

    “A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist Church in Birmingham,” Patterson began his column. “In her hand she held a shoe, one shoe, from the foot of her dead child. We hold that shoe with her…………………………………………
    “Every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand. … We who go on electing politicians who heat the kettles of hate. … (The bomber) feels right now that he has been a hero. He is only guilty of murder. He thinks he has pleased us. We of the white South who know better are the ones who must take a harsher judgment.”

  31. 31
    JPL says:

    Last night BAGO had a comment without explanation about his roommate. Did he/she update further?

  32. 32
    Mino says:

    @SiubhanDuinne: Oops. Glad you caught that. One cup of coffee is no excuse.

  33. 33
    JPL says:

    @Mino: Aaron’s friend said it wasn’t Carmen but Steve Heymann.

    the buck stops here no longer applies, I guess

  34. 34
    Maude says:

    You are having an awful time. Keep commenting about it.
    I rant and rant until something is out of my system. It does help.
    You sound so tired.
    I wish I could help.

  35. 35
    Emma says:

    @Gex: Oh Lord. I wouldn’t presume to give advice on the personal side, except to echo Maude and tell you to keep ranting until you can breathe easily. But I do want to pass on something a doctor once told me about caring for my aging, financially-dependent parents: save something for yourself. Remember if you don’t take care of yourself, it’s going to be impossible to care for other people.

  36. 36
    Bob h says:

    Pick on the defenseless little guy, but don’t pick on the powerful bank bosses who caused the recession. Talk about selective prosecution.

  37. 37
    SiubhanDuinne says:


    I remember that, but I can’t recall which thread it was on, and a quick scrolling-around isn’t finding it for me now. Hope s/he was just being hyperbolic and was referring to finding the roommate passed out drunk or something, not a literal corpse.

  38. 38
    Mino says:

    @JPL: Just to keep the name straight…Stephan P. Heymann.

    But Ms Carmen was no bystander…

    And Chris Dodd.

  39. 39
  40. 40
    polyorchnid octopunch says:

    Abuse of process is a crime made all the more terrible by the full weight of the state behind it.

    We’re having some major problems with that up here in Canuckistan as well. I fear it won’t change until some mobs beat a fair number of these ‘crusaders’ for the moneyed class to death.

  41. 41
    polyorchnid octopunch says:

    Further to my comment above: A terrible story that reflects very very badly on our justice system.

  42. 42
    WaterGirl says:

    @SiubhanDuinne: I read the article you linked to. What an amazing man.

    Wouldn’t it be great if we could hear about these inspirational people while they are still alive?

    Maybe one of our front pagers could do a guest thread once a week where BJ folks could submit a thread about some inspirational person we would all love to know about. Maybe sunday mornings, or sunday evenings, or maybe saturday afternoons when things are normally a bit slower, anyway.

    It might be a nice antidote to the all the things that bring us down.

  43. 43
    Phoebes says:

    @Gex: what is the story about you and Kate? I haven’t seen it before now. Whatever it is, I hope you can help yourself.

  44. 44
    Machine-Gun Preacher (formerly Ben Franklin) says:

    @Bob h:

    Talk about selective prosecution.

    it’s actually selective enforcement, which, to me, is a crime worthy of the name Felony.

    When you say selective prosecution, it gives air to the Authoritarians, as they have much at stake in The Law, and the lawyers representing The People, have
    prosecutorial discretion.

    Big diff.

  45. 45
    Cassidy says:

    @Gex: Hey dude. I’ve got no experience with this thing, but I do know how I’d feel if it was my wife. We’ve been married since 99. We went to prom together in HS. I love her dearly and more each day. If we were going through this it would be hard. So, being there for someone who didn’t appreciate you beforehand and as a BF, says a lot. I’ve got a lot of respect for that.

    You can’t a;ways change people. And maybe, after this is all done, you’ll need to step back and see if someone else can appreciate you more. I also think you’re not obligated to be there and if you decided to stop after this bout of treatment is through, no one would blame you.

  46. 46
    Ted & Hellen says:


    Hi Gex.

    I want to suggest that you please, please find a real person in meat space, preferably a qualified professional, with whom do vent these issues and discuss options and approaches that can really help.

    In short, professional, caring counseling WORKS. I know. Please use it. It sounds like you have good insurance. It probably covers counseling.

    Venting into the ether on a political blog isn’t really going to help much. We’re all just pixels on a screen.

    PLEASE act on this.

  47. 47
    SiubhanDuinne says:


    Nice idea. All too often we learn about these incredible people only through NYT obits and RIP threads. All the better if the inspirational person is still around, although obviously not a requirement.

    Eugene Patterson was quite well known back in the day. I remember him from his prime years, and yet if someone had asked me a few days ago whether he was still alive, I wouldn’t have had a clue. I’m glad some of the major papers are devoting big chunks of real estate to remembering him and paying tribute.

  48. 48
    Suzanne says:

    @Gex: Oh, honey. I of course send you my best thoughts and wish I could send you some real hugs through the series of tubes. We are always here to unload to. Please take care of yourself.

  49. 49
    Mnemosyne says:


    Ugh. Yes, it’s difficult to simultaneously deal with the day-to-day ups and downs of a major illness and suppress your resentment about the damage the ill person did to your relationship. Hospitals usually have social workers on call who are trained in counseling — can you ask to speak to one while you’re there and try to talk through some of these feelings?

  50. 50
    Mnemosyne says:


    Also, too, the hospital may offer a spousal support group that you can sneak out to because, believe me, you are not the first person to have these feelings and talking to other people who are experiencing the same thing may help as well.

  51. 51
    WaterGirl says:

    @Ted & Hellen: You know, I virtually NEVER read your comments. But I read this one because I thought it might be genuine.

    You said this:

    Venting into the ether on a political blog isn’t really going to help much.

    But if you have really been listening to Gex you would know that she has said multiple times how much it helps to be able to vent here and receive kind, caring comments in return.

    So who the hell are you to tell her that venting here isn’t going to help much?

    There’s not a thing wrong with talking to professionals or a support group of folks who are going through something similar. It can be a great help, in fact. But lecturing someone and telling them what to do and telling them that what helps them isn’t really helping them, that’s not helpful.

    Geez, if you’re going to try to be helpful, could you please just LISTEN first?

  52. 52
    angler says:

    This blog was not so forgiving of Swartz when the JSTOR story broke:

  53. 53
    WaterGirl says:

    @David Koch: I think she’s saving the rocks in her pocket for when her participation can be constructive. She has no standing in this as a senator and her involvement in a public discussion would serve no purpose.

  54. 54
    WaterGirl says:

    @David Koch: Answer #2

    Elizabeth Warren has been senator for almost 45 minutes. Why hasn’t she publicly involved herself in every controversial issue that has come up? Gee, I don’t know. Maybe because she’s smart?

  55. 55
    David Koch says:

    @WaterGirl: how are these matters controversial?

    Warren is doing everything possible to prove FDL was right when they said “Warren would make a terrible Senator”.

  56. 56
    WaterGirl says:

    @David Koch: I’m wasting my breath if I”m turing to have a reasonable conversation with anyone who had decided, after only one week on the job, that Warren is a terrible senator.

    I tried to go back to your original post so I could speak to whether those things were controversial or not, and your original post is gone. ???

    So I guess we’re at the end of the road on this little conversation. :-)

  57. 57
    Ted & Hellen says:


    So who the hell are you to tell her that venting here isn’t going to help much?

    When will you give up and just seriously fuck off?

    Who are you to be providing online counseling to someone you can’t see or hear or touch?

    Online chatting with strangers is NOT a recommended form of counseling for serious situations: god knows what any one of us might say that is the wrong thing at the wrong time. Gex or anyone else in a similar situation needs meat space help, someone who can SEE and HEAR her in the real world.

    This is a political blog, not an all purpose counseling center, as much as you wish it were.

    It’s not surprising that your densitude extends to all subject matter; not just politics. Again I say, engage real people in the real world and quit trying to control BJ into being the center of your universe.

  58. 58
    Ted & Hellen says:


    You know, I virtually NEVER read your comments.

    Oh please. You read them all. You hang on every word.

    But I read this one because I thought it might be genuine.

    It was entirely genuine and heartfelt. Unlike yours, in which you play a dangerous game of amateur psychologist.

  59. 59
    Lex says:

    Here’s your next political bumper sticker: Aaron Swartz is dead, and Tim Geithner is alive.

  60. 60
    xian says:

    @WaterGirl: don’t engage with it. to the troll this site is purely a stage for performing its heroic acts of political savagery and ego.

    it doesn’t understand how a community might emerge, how people might care about each other as human beings and not simply as symbols and stimuli and objects to provoke reactions from.

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