Aaron Swartz And The Obama Administration’s War On Public Access To Information

220px-Aaron_Swartz_at_Boston_Wikipedia_Meetup,_2009-08-18_PresObamaThe suicide of famed programmer and free access advocate Aaron Swartz shocked the world. However, the underlying story of the how the Obama Administration prosecuted — and, in the eyes of many, persecuted — Swartz for seeking to publish academic papers which were later released by MIT without charge. Nevertheless, United States Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz and the Obama Administration relentlessly pursued Swartz and sought an absurd 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines before he took his own life. His family blames the Justice Department and Ortiz for his suicide. Swartz opposed the Administration’s fight against public access and particularly President Obama’s “Kill List.” The Swartz prosecution was widely criticized for months but the Obama Administration and Justice Department remained committed to putting him in jail.


Swartz was one of this country’s most extraordinary individuals. At age 14, he helped create RSS, the tool allowing people to subscribe to online information. He later was a founder of a company that merged with Reddit where we get many of our daily stories.

Swartz, 26, hanged himself and appears to have suffered from depression. Thus, the prosecution cannot be entirely attributed with his death. However, the Obama Administration hammered Swartz for months over his downloading of academic articles. Swartz has long been an advocate for public access to information. Like many of us, Swartz was critical of increasingly stringent laws balkanizing information in our society from works to words to even common images. He however took that crusade to extraordinary lengths.

In 2008, he took on PACER, or Public Access to Court Electronic Records, for its charging of 10 cents a page for documents. I agreed with Swartz about this charge as being a barrier to public access to our courts and important cases. He argued correctly that there should be free access. He co-founded Demand Progress to seek online access and fought for social reforms. The federal government, at the behest of industry groups, shutdown his free library program.

In 2011, Swartz took on JSTOR, the academic repository of papers and research. It is a subscription based service. He broke into the computer system at MIT through a utility closet using a laptop and a false identity. He downloaded 4.8 million documents. Notably, however, MIT chose not to pursue charges — to its credit. For many years, academics argued that such material should be free to the public as a matter of principle. Two days before Swartz’s death, MIT releases all documents publicly free of charge.

However, despite MIT’s position that it did not want to bring charges, Carmen M. Ortiz saw her chance. Carmen-Ortiz-144x150Ortiz is the United States Attorney for Massachusetts and a graduate of our law school who spoke recently at our commencement. Industry groups and lobbyists have long gotten what they wanted from Obama on criminalizing trademark and copyright violations. States have shown the same capture by industry groups. Swartz was a prime target as an advocate of public access and the Obama Administration threw everything that they had at him.

There is no question that Swartz crossed the line and broke into the system. However, given MIT’s position against charging Swartz, it would seem a case for prosecutorial discretion or a deal with Swartz. After all, students commit such acts regularly (though certainly not to the size of this download) without charges. Ortiz, however, sought decades in jail and ruinous fines to the great pleasure of the copyright hawks that run throughout the Administration. To the Administration, Swartz was just another felon who needed to be jailed for decades for his crime.

It is doubtful that the Administration will take any action to reduce the stranglehold on creativity and discussion by these laws. The Administration has brought in copyright hawks into the Administration and appointed them to the courts in a windfall for industry.

MIT has started an investigation into any role the school may have played in the prosecution by the Obama Administration. What is notable is that Swartz’s treatment at the hands of the Justice Department has caused outrage. However, thousands of average citizens have been ravaged by the Administration or industry law firms like the U.S. Copyright Group under these laws without attention or concern.

The abuse of Swartz speaks of industry capture of our government that has now claimed the life of one of the brightest of our country. He is the ultimate personification of how our copyright and trademark laws have been flipped on their head. Rather than protect creativity, they now stifle such creativity. We now have prosecutors and lawyers pursuing people like Swartz to prevent public access to information. His tragic image hanging in his apartment speaks to the dismal state of information control in this country. His was truly a beautiful mind and his death should galvanize his cause to empower citizens in their demand to breakdown the rising barriers to information in this country.

Source: NY Times

143 thoughts on “Aaron Swartz And The Obama Administration’s War On Public Access To Information

  1. I am hoping that a computer savvy guy such as Aaron Swartz was smart enough to leave a note somewhere on line in such a way it will not be ‘disappeared’ before it is found.

  2. Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman (at Aaron’s public memorial service):

    “Last Friday he faced the prospect of yet another three months of uncertainty and ups and downs and being forced by the government to spend every fiber of his being on this damnable, senseless trial, with no guarantee he could exonerate himself at the end of it. He was so scared and so frustrated and so desperate and more than anything, just so weary. I think he just couldn’t take it another day … Aaron would have loved to have been here because out of the last week and out of today, Phoenixes are already rising from his ashes. The best possible legacy for him is for all of us to go out from here today and do everything we can to make the world a better place.

    A thousand flowers are blooming in his name already. Some of the most important that we’ll be fighting for — David Siegel, and many others — are organizing around: the U.S. attorneys office must be held accountable for its actions.”

  3. Elaine, reading Styron helped me deal with and find a solution to my cyclical major depression. I have been free of the black dog for 20 years now, knock on wood.

  4. I think another thing that should be investigated because of the death of Aaron Swartz is the effect of unnecessary and/or inappropriate litigation upon the normal layperson, and what Dickens called “the torture of laws.” Here we had a non-criminal person who technically committed a crime. The alleged victims of the crime were not interested in pursuing the matter (unless they are lying about it at this point because of their well deserved embarrassment). The system, personified by the prosecutors, took on a position that was not only unnecessary but that created its own reality. Because they exaggerated the matter, it became bigger. This is possible from a variety of standpoints. So these particular prosecutors “got a hard on” for Swartz and set out to destroy him and did destroy him. The fact that it is “business as usual” is not as important as the fact that we would not have a much different system if we were just some country like Saudi Arabia where the ruling party’s enemies can be utterly destroyed regardless of the merits or the equities involved. The failure to look at the real human issues involved in what our governments (state, local, federal, executive, judicial, etc.) do has become so extreme that we probably spend half our tax dollars doing things that are morally repulsive.

    At the same time, what is being ignored? A mortgage banker in California has already committed dozens of felonies and defrauded people out of millions and millions of dollars, by perjury, false federal filings, false notarizations, and dozens of other individual actual crimes against actual individuals. They have ended up on the street, losing their homes, losing even their children in situations where having a home is required to maintain custody. Report after report after report of this mortgage fraud has gone in to the US Attorneys’ offices involved. They were backed up with paperwork that was undeniable; a licensed private detective has actually compiled the data and approached law enforcement more than four times personally trying to get some control over this criminal activity. Nothing has happened. Two suspicious deaths have now occurred involving people who were messed up in this ongoing ignored scandal. And what does the US Attorney’s office say repeatedly when presented with the documentation and the evidence? “There is so much fraud going on that we do not have time to investigate this one; it is not big enough to investigate.”

    Yet an office spends time on punishing a guy for downloading academic data on the internet, with no complaining witnesses. We are doomed and we well deserve it. If our system had no time to deal with real crime because it was diddling itself constantly with insane faked up stupid puffery, who should care if we’re standing here without our rights and without any remedy other than an assault rifle in the hands of the misguided miscellaneous lunatic?

    • These cases are nothing new since there were many other such cases motivated by politics. The one I was protesting was the Ramos and Compean case of the two BP agents who shot and wounded a drug smuggler who had fought with Compean. They were sentenced to many years in prison for not reporting the shooting, even though they were not required to report it, their supervisor was, and they had no idea that they had actually hit the crook. He ran back across the river border near El Paso. Their sentence was commuted by Bush at the last minute, but they still need a pardon.

  5. The War On Computing: What Happens When Authorities Don’t Understand Technology

    by Mike Masnick

    Wed, Jan 23rd 2013

    http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20130122/15111221754/war-computing-what-happens-when-authorities-dont-understand-technology.shtml

    Excerpt:

    “Yes, in all three of these cases you can make a case that what the individual did went further than others would go. Some might call it discourteous. Swartz downloaded a lot more than the system intended, even though the network was open and the terms allowed for unlimited downloads. Auernheimer didn’t just find the hole, but he scraped a bunch of data and sent some of it off to a reporter. Al-Khabaz didn’t just find the security hole, but he also went back and probed the system again later. But, in the context of someone who lives in this kind of world and understands technology, all three represent completely natural behavior. If the technology allows it, why not probe the system and see what comes out? It’s the natural curiosity of a young and insightful mind, looking to see what information is there. When it’s made available, how do you not then seek to access it?

    But there is a fundamental disconnect between an older, non-digital generation who doesn’t get this. They think in terms of walls and locks, and clear delineations.

    The younger generation, the digital native, net savvy generation looks at all of this as information that is available and accessible. The limitation is merely what they can reach with their computer. But this isn’t a bad thing — this is how we discover new things and build and learn. Treating that as criminal behavior is insane and backwards. It’s trying to apply an analog concept to a digital world, and then criminalizing exactly what the system allows and what we should be encouraging people to do — to push the network, to explore, to learn and to access information.

    This is a culture clash, of sorts, but it represents a real problem, when we’re criminalizing the most curious and adept computer savvy folks out there.

  6. MIT review into Aaron Swartz’s death complete in ‘a few weeks’

    Massachusetts Institute of Technology, under fire for its role in the felony prosecution of Internet activist who downloaded academic papers, elaborates on its ongoing internal probe.

    by Declan McCullagh

    January 23, 2013

    Excerpt:

    An October 2012 court filing (PDF) from Swartz’s lawyers argued that “MIT personnel were acting as agents of law enforcement.” It also says that “MIT’s problem with JSTOR could have been ended by disconnecting that computer from the MIT network. Instead, it elected to intercept communications, not to protect the MIT system, but to gather information for law enforcement purposes.”

    Abelson’s statement says:

    This matter is urgently serious for MIT. The world respects us not only for our scholarship and our science, but because we are an institution whose actions are and always have been guided by the highest ideals and the most thoughtful judgment. Our commitment to those ideals is now coming into question. At last Saturday’s memorial, Aaron’s partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, described his mental state: “He faced indifference from MIT, an institution that could have protected him with a single public statement and refused to do so, in defiance of all of its own most cherished principles.”

    I don’t know — we don’t know — if that’s accurate or fair. But it demands our response. I hope this review can provide some insight into what MIT did or didn’t do, and why.

    The review will not be a witch-hunt or an attempt to lay blame on individuals. We don’t know what we’ll find as the answers unfold, but I expect to find that every person acted in accordance with MIT policy. More than that: they acted in the belief that their actions were legally and ethically proper.

    MIT is soliciting questions from the public for its review at swartz-review.mit.edu.

  7. This is brilliant. I’ve been waiting for the transcript. (Watch the video — it’s worth it.)

    Edward Tufte’s defense of Aaron Swartz and the “marvelously different”

    http://danwin.com/2013/01/edward-tufte-aaron-swartz-marvelously-different/

    Well, during our experimentation, AT&T, on the second day it turned out, had tapped our phone. But it wasn’t until about six months later when I got a call from a gentleman, A.J. Dodge, a senior security person at AT&T. And I said, “I know what you’re calling about”.

    And so we met. And he said what we’re doing is a crime…But I knew it wasn’t serious because he actually cared about the kind of engineering stuff and complained that the tone signals we were generating were not up to standard. Because they recorded them and played them back into the network to see what numbers we were trying to reach and they couldn’t break through some of the noise of our signal.

    He asked why we went off the air after about three months…And I said, well, we regarded it as an engineering problem and we made the longest long-distance telephone call…and that was it.

    And so the the deal was, as I explained to my email to Bill Bowen, was that we wouldn’t try to sell this…we wouldn’t do any more of it, and that we would turn our equipment over to AT&T. And so they got a complete vacuum oscillator kit for making long distance phone calls.

    But I was grateful for A.J. Dodge and, I must say, even AT&T, that they decided not to wreck my life.

    And so I told Bill Bowen that he had a great opportunity here to not wreck somebody’s life. And of course he thankfully did the right thing.

    Aaron’s unique quality was that he was marvelously and vigorously different.

    There is a scarcity of that.

    Perhaps we can be all a little more different too.

  8. shano posted the following to another thread:

    http://news.cnet.com/8301-13578_3-57565927-38/swartz-didnt-face-prison-until-feds-took-over-case-report-says/

    “State prosecutors who investigated the late Aaron Swartz had planned to let him off with a stern warning, but federal prosecutor Carmen Ortiz took over and chose to make an example of the Internet activist, according to a report in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly.”

    Thanks, shano.

    ========

    NOW with Alex Wagner | Aired on January 25, 2013

    “When the pursuit of knowledge becomes an illegal activity”

    “In light of Internet activist Aaron Swartz’s suicide, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes joins Alex Wagner to discuss the prosecution of cyber criminals and why some lawmakers are looking for ways to change the laws on Internet piracy.”

    http://video.msnbc.msn.com/now-with-alex-wagner/50589474#50589474

  9. Anonymous hacks US Sentencing Commission website for Swartz

    http://rt.com/usa/news/anonymous-hack-us-swartz-789/

    Published: 26 January, 2013, 14:51

    Hacktivist movement Anonymous has hijacked the US Sentencing Commission website as a personal vendetta to retaliate against the justice system that threatened to imprison web activist Aaron Swartz, who recently committed suicide, for decades.

    The website was hacked early Saturday and a message was placed saying that “a line was crossed” when Swartz killed himself two weeks ago.

    “Two weeks ago today, Aaron Swartz was killed. Killed because he faced an impossible choice. Killed because he was forced into playing a game he could not win — a twisted and distorted perversion of justice — a game where the only winning move was not to play,” the statement read.

    Anonymous now threatens to release secret information that they have reportedly copied from several governments’ computer systems they were able to access.

    The hackers also put up their video statement and a list of files named after US Supreme Court justices on the hacked website.

    Earlier, Anonymous gained access to MIT’s website and the Department of Justice, DOJ.gov website, using distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks to avenge the passing of Swartz.

    Aaron Swartz, who co-founded both the website Reddit and the activism organization Demand Progress, was due to appear in federal court during the coming weeks because the United States says he illegally downloaded millions of academic papers from the website JSTOR, presumably for public distribution, while logged onto the computer network of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. If convicted, Swartz could have been sentenced to upwards of 35 years in prison and a US$1 million fine.

    The 26-year-old Harvard fellow openly discussed his bouts with depression in the past, but Swartz’s parents and advocates alike have suggested that a serious legal fight that has dominated the activist’s life in recent years played a role in his passing.

    In a statement published shortly after his death, the activist’s family said, “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.”

    Others, including Kim Dotcom, the founder of the now-defunct file-storage site Megaupload, also believe that Aaron Swartz became a political target, and that is what led to his tragic death.

    “There is no reasonable cause behind going after a young genius like him in the fashion they did,” Dotcom told RT in an interview.

    ­

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