Aaron Swartz

The crazy people at the Collegian, the student paper at The University of Tulsa, let me write stuff. This article below was featured in the Jan. 21st issue. (link to article coming soon)

The Internet was abuzz Jan. 12 with the news that 26-year-old Aaron Swartz was found dead in his apartment. He had hung himself the day prior.

Swartz was born in Chicago to a father who worked in the computer industry. He became interested in computers at a young age. One of his first achievements was co-authoring the RSS 1.0 specification—a tool for publishing blogs, podcasts and more to the web—at the age of 14.

Swartz’s work gives more people a voice on the Internet. In 2010, he founded Demand Progress, an organization to help organize a fight again PIPA, SOPA and other acts from the government and private groups which would censor the Internet.

Shortly after the acquisition of his company by the publishers of “Wired” magazine, he was forced out of the company because, as he wrote in 2007, “I was miserable. I couldn’t stand San Francisco. I couldn’t stand office life … I got sick. I thought of suicide.”

Swartz struggled with depression, and many people were aware of his illness. His death has started to get people in the tech industry to discuss depression more openly in hopes of being better able to support others suffering from the condition. Sam Altman, current executive vice president of Mobile at Green Dot, said that depression is “a major issue, and it’s one of the least talked about things in the Valley.”

Swartz was willing to speak publicly about his depression, but help was inadequate. The time for people in Silicon Valley to more openly acknowledge depression should have started long ago, but at least it seems they are learning from the mistakes of the past. Hopefully the words will turn into long-term, meaningful actions.

But talk of depression is not the reason the Internet was abuzz these last few days. Rather, people were furious with the federal government, particularly with Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. Attorney for the U.S. District Court for Massachusetts, and Stephen Heymann and Scott L. Garland, assistant U.S. Attorneys in that district.

The Attorney’s office charged Swartz for crimes including, but not limited to “Recklessly Damaging a Computer,” “Theft of Information From A Computer” and “Computer Fraud” under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act from 1986 and with “Wire Fraud.” These charges could have landed Swartz in jail for up to 35 years and earned up to a $1 million fine.

After Swartz’s death, these charges were dropped, but they should never have been brought against Swartz to begin with. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes said the charges stemmed from Swartz “downloading too many free articles from the online database of scholarly work JSTOR.”

Though prosecution maintained Swartz had intended to illegally distribute these free articles, he had not shared them and JSTOR was not seeking that charges be filed, yet Swartz was still charged.

According to Swartz’s attorney, Heymann was “pursuing federal charges against Swartz to gain publicity,” and was “very, very difficult to deal with.” Swartz’s father has even gone as far as to say that his son was “killed by the government.”

The U.S. Attorney’s office was pushing a sick man into a corner. Because of their thickheadedness, we lost a brilliant individual who has contributed to keeping the Internet open for all and providing a voice for those who once did not have one. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and a man with whom I rarely agree, plans to do the right thing and investigate how the attorneys involved handled this case.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) has proposed changing Computer Fraud and Abuse Act to be less broad and contain less severe punishments, and is drafting a new bill she calls Aaron’s Law, that would contain “broader measures to improve copyright law that are separate from” the bill to amend the CFAA.

It is important to let our representatives in Washington know that we do not support the actions of these attorneys, our attorneys, in this case. Let them know that we do not support these laws which can restrict our access to free and open works. Make sure that they understand that we will not tolerate trials for politics. A death like Swartz’s should never happen again.