FIVE THôT columnist DEREK GORDON is a marketing and sales exec with more than 20 years success in integrated marketing and sales strategy and management. He is the Chief Marketing and Sales Officer for Pathbrite.
Aaron Swartz, a brilliant young man just 26 years old, is dead. Last week, he took his own life and ended not only an amazing career but by all accounts a load of intense personal pain.
His death is a tragedy for his family and the people who knew and loved him. But his death has also robbed the world of a bright light committed to openness and transparency and access within a purview he had a hand in perfecting: the Internet.
For those who don’t know, Aaron co-wrote the book on RSS at the age of 14. He went on to found a number of companies including one that now comprises the popular and addictive site, Reddit.
But where Aaron made his greatest impact was in his fight for a freer and more open Web. He was a real force behind the opposition to SOPA, the so-called Stop Online Piracy Act that was pushed by the Hollywood lobby, but which threatened free speech and innovation, and would have enabled law enforcement to block access to entire Internet domains due to infringing content posted on a single blog or webpage.
Thanks to Aaron’s efforts and the backlash he helped to inspire, that legislation was killed – much to the chagrin of some very powerful people on and off Capitol Hill.
Then came what many are calling the witch-hunt. From Wikipedia:
On January 6, 2011, Swartz was arrested in connection with systematic downloading of academic journal articles from JSTOR, which became the subject of a federal investigation. Swartz opposed JSTOR's practice of compensating publishers, rather than authors, out of the fees it charges for access to articles. Swartz contended that JSTOR's fees limited access to academic work produced at American colleges and universities.
But while the arrest was perhaps technically warranted, it was completely unnecessary, as described by The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald:
Swartz never distributed any of these downloaded articles. He never intended to profit even a single penny from anything he did, and never did profit in any way. He had every right to download the articles as an authorized JSTOR user; at worst, he intended to violate the company's "terms of service" by making the articles available to the public. Once arrested, he returned all copies of everything he downloaded and vowed not to use them. JSTOR told federal prosecutors that it had no intent to see him prosecuted, though MIT remained ambiguous about its wishes.
But federal prosecutors ignored the wishes of the alleged "victims". Led by a federal prosecutor in Boston notorious for her overzealous prosecutions, the DOJ threw the book at him, charging Swartz with multiple felonies which carried a total sentence of several decades in prison and $1 million in fines.
Think about that – several decades in jail and $1 million in fines for an alleged crime where there were no victims, no calls for prosecutorial action and no intention to profit. At worst, a young man did something petulant and silly. At worst. This is slap-of-the-hand stuff. And most people who knew Aaron felt it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
You see, while Aaron was brave and even heroic, he was also troubled. Like many great minds and great artists and great leaders, he was occasionally plagued by a deep and abiding darkness – one that manifested in depression and melancholy. While he mostly managed to keep it all together so he could continue his vital work, the bullying by over-zealous federal prosecutors proved too much in the end.
According the official statement of Swartz's 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 US 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."
Lawrence Lessig wrote movingly and convincingly along these same lines:
Here is where we need a better sense of justice, and shame… From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. The “property” Aaron had “stolen,” we were told, was worth “millions of dollars” — with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime. But anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar. It was clear what this was not, yet our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed.
This is a tragedy. And a senseless one at that. What makes it so galling is that it was done in our name by a government that has loss all sense of proportion and duty. We should all feel ashamed.