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. Another example of prosecutors using existing laws to go beyond society’s original intent.

    While judicial overreach is a common issue, prosecutorial overreach is probably a more serious problem.

    Part of the problem is the myriad of laws on the books – that gives prosecutors the opportunity to charge defendants with numerous crimes (just look at your recent column about the burglar who attempted to strangle the Rottweiler).

    Faced with the potential for decades in prison, most defendants take a guilty plea that gives them a few years (and that ignores the ruinous cost of defending against a tsunami of criminal charges).

    Justice in America is being subverted – don’t know what the ultimate result will be, but common American have less access to justice than is commonly believed.

  2. “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.

    Today, we grieve for the extraordinary and irreplaceable man that we have lost.” Statement made by the family and partner of Aaron Swartz

  3. It is time to march on Washington this May Day. Shut Down The War Or We Will Shut Down The Government. (May Day is May First).

  4. This dude had it exactly right and you can tell by the reaction from the feds. And he is not alone, not by a mile. This is setting off a chain-reaction within the Reddit community. The feds are forcing the assembly of armed resistance where the battles are for data. Lousy bits, little 1s and 0s that have the power to do the most wretched thing in all of human existence: the power to Embarrass.

    Watch interest in meshnets now explode. The ISP model must be brought to its knees now. It is how we will flush out the torturers, sadists, and thieves, all practically medieval references, but this is what we have,

    Rest Well, Prince!

  5. http://www.rememberaaronsw.com


    Brian McConnell
    I first met Aaron at Foo Camp. He was a teenager then, and even then, he stood out compared to the people there, people at the highest levels of the technology industry.
    His death is deeply shameful, and should forever mark the careers of the people who bullied him into suicide. His crime was basically to photocopy obscure academic articles, not to make a profit, but to make the point that rent-seeking “publishers” shouldn’t be granted a monopoly to charge for access to other people’s research that the public has already paid for.
    His passing should also be a warning to all of us that we now live in a security state where anybody can be targeted by an ambitious prosecutor, for any reason, or no reason at all, beyond his or her own advancement to higher power.
    If you can be faced with 50 years in federal prison for “stealing” academic papers, you can be thrown in jail for anything. Nobody is safe.
    Brian McConnell, Worldwide Lexicon Project 13 Jan 2013

  6. Grinding an axe much, to repeatedly describe the decisions of the Mass AUSA as “the Obama Administration”? Do you really think the White House, or even the AG, weighed in on charging decisions in the Aaron Swartz case? Give me a break.

  7. http://www.rememberaaronsw.com/memories/brian-mcconnell.html

    Brian McConnell

    I first met Aaron at Foo Camp. He was a teenager then, and even then, he stood out compared to the people there, people at the highest levels of the technology industry.

    His death is deeply shameful, and should forever mark the careers of the people who bullied him into suicide. His crime was basically to photocopy obscure academic articles, not to make a profit, but to make the point that rent-seeking “publishers” shouldn’t be granted a monopoly to charge for access to other people’s research that the public has already paid for.

    His passing should also be a warning to all of us that we now live in a security state where anybody can be targeted by an ambitious prosecutor, for any reason, or no reason at all, beyond his or her own advancement to higher power.

    If you can be faced with 50 years in federal prison for “stealing” academic papers, you can be thrown in jail for anything. Nobody is safe.

    Brian McConnell, Worldwide Lexicon Project 13 Jan 2013

  8. Obama apparently has never been on the side of transparency in government or on the side of progressives. The death of Mr. Swartz is a tragic example of a government that protects corporate interests above all else.

    Prosecutorial overreach is a serious disease that infects every level of our criminal justice system, particularly when the target is defenseless. Win and lose not justice is the measure the Justice department applies. Few average people can ever hope to win against the massive resources of the government that is why we are supposed to have constitutional rights to protect us from government overreach but I am so quaint and obsolete.

    A sad loss on so many levels.

  9. Sane people understand that bullying someone to death….whether death comes by illness, suicide or accident, is murder. The faction that uses this manner of treatment to have their way with people are just another arm of the mob….certainly not people you want in positions of ‘governance’ and most certainly not people who you want to see in ‘law’….for they’ve made it very clear that they have no belief in ‘law’.

  10. Follow up to myself – you know, it takes a special kind of mind to seize the opportunity of a suicide to get a few digs in against the Obama administration, despite the utter absence of any role by cabinet members or presidential staff in this whole debacle.

    As much as Ortiz missed the perfect chance to appropriately use her discretion by letting this case go, or reducing the charges, it hardly involves Obama to the extent necessary to justify using his photo and repeating his name five times and referring to “the Administration” separately another four times.

    (also, Ortiz is USA, not AUSA, my mistake)

  11. I confess knowing nothing of this gentleman until his death. What I have found interesting in my reading up on Swartz is that there is none of the tiresome left/right on this. From what I’ve read so far the outrage is across the political spectrum.

  12. You have to wonder about this ‘progressive’ President. He makes Nixon with all his paranoia and trampling on the Constitution look like a real progressive.

    My props to MIT for investigating its role in this fiasco.

    It appears that “we the people” are the enemies of this administration. If you’re a corporate criminal, war criminal or corporate polluter, you get a pass. What a legacy? One hopes that history will be none too kind on Obama and his administration .

  13. knowledge is power.

    But intellectual property belongs to the person who created it.

    except if tax dollars were used in the creation.

  14. You have to wonder about this ‘progressive’ President. He makes Nixon with all his paranoia and trampling on the Constitution look like a real progressive. – Mark Collins

    We’re due for another Watergate-like moment. If and/or when the truth about what’s taking place on America soil is revealed, the tide might turn. Wikileaks has promised another round of “leaks” early this year.


    “Next year will be equally busy. WikiLeaks has already over a million documents being prepared to be released, documents that affect every country in the world. Every country in this world.

    And in Australia an unelected Senator will be replaced by one that is elected.

    In 2013, we continue to stand up to bullies. The Ecuadorian government and the governments of Latin America have shown how co-operating through shared values can embolden governments to stand up to coercion and support self-determination. Their governments threaten no one, attack no one, send drones at no one. But together they stand strong and independent.

    The tired calls of Washington powerbrokers for economic sanctions against Ecuador, simply for defending my rights, are misguided and wrong. President Correa rightly said, “Ecuador’s principles are not for sale.” We must unite together to defend the courageous people of Ecuador, to defend them against intervention in their economy and interference in their elections next year.

    The power of people speaking up and resisting together terrifies corrupt and undemocratic power. So much so that ordinary people here in the West are now the enemy of governments, an enemy to be watched, an enemy to be controlled and to be impoverished.

    True democracy is not the White House. True democracy is not Canberra. True democracy is the resistance of people, armed with the truth, against lies, from Tahrir to right here in London. Every day, ordinary people teach us that democracy is free speech and dissent.

    For once we, the people, stop speaking out and stop dissenting, once we are distracted or pacified, once we turn away from each other, we are no longer free. For true democracy is the sum – is the sum – of our resistance.

    If you don’t speak up – if you give up what is uniquely yours as a human being: if you surrender your consciousness, your independence, your sense of what is right and what is wrong, in other words – perhaps without knowing it, you become passive and controlled, unable to defend yourselves and those you love.

    People often ask, “What can I do?”

    The answer is not so difficult.

    Learn how the world works. Challenge the statements and intentions of those who seek to control us behind a facade of democracy and monarchy.

    Unite in common purpose and common principle to design, build, document, finance and defend.

    Learn. Challenge. Act.

    Now.” -Julian Assange

  15. Nate Awrich, you might look hard at your desire to insulate Obama from criticism as being of only second order importance, if that, of ANY — ANY — atrocity that takes place in the name and under the executive aegis and discretion of the United States of America and many administrati8ve tendrils. Letting Obama off the hook on a rhetorical nuance might seem clear to you, but to many of us he IS the leverage and motivation behind the deteriorating surveillance and information control state the US has become.

  16. But, to me, much of Swartz’s tragically short life was filled with acts that are genuinely and, in the most literal and noble sense, heroic. I think that’s really worth thinking about today. … Whatever else is true, Swartz was destroyed by a “justice” system that fully protects the most egregious criminals as long as they are members of or useful to the nation’s most powerful factions, but punishes with incomparable mercilessness and harshness those who lack power and, most of all, those who challenge power.
    – Glenn Greeenwald 13 Jan 2013 (http://www.rememberaaronsw.com)

    “This sort of unrestrained prosecutorial abuse is, unfortunately, far from uncommon. It usually destroys people without attention or notice. Let’s hope – and work to ensure that – the attention generated by Swartz’s case prompts some movement toward accountability and reform.”
    -Glenn Greenwald (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jan/12/aaron-swartz-heroism-suicide1)

    Many Americans aren’t aware of the great lengths to which our government will go to destroy those who challenge the status-quo.

  17. ap:

    I think people do get it, they just dont get it enough. The money the government doles out speaks loudly. They hate congress but love their congressman because he brings home bacon to their district.

    The people want the goodies, the only way to change is to eliminate the goodies but you dont want to do that, progressives like goodies distributed all around.

    You cant have it both ways. Government only has power because of the favors it sells to people and companies. Change the tax system and most regulations and you will end government monopoly on economic power.

    An internet business not beholden to government dictates is going to listen the its customers.

    A liberal in the 19th century believed in free markets, progressives changed that with Teddy Roosevelt and it has been downhill ever since.

  18. It is still an anomaly that academic documents, produced by researchers paid from public grants, are the property of private company. Academic output stems from the international community, and belongs to humankind.

    Psychological harassment can lead to depression and suicide. It’s to easy to ascibe his dead to a mental condition.

  19. “What Kind of Fishing Trip Did the Government Conduct into Aaron Swartz’ Amazon Data?”:


    “A lot of people are justifiably furious with US Attorney Carmen Ortiz and AUSA Heymann’s conduct on this case.

    “But the involvement of the Secret Service just as it evolved from a local breaking and entry case into the excessive charges ultimately charged makes it clear that this was a nationally directed effort to take down Swartz.”


  20. ap,

    I am simply too saddened by this death to enter into any long discussion. Every human being has a breaking point and the government placed the final straw on Aaron’s back. His family is correct in pointing their finger at Ortiz.

  21. Ben Franklin would be appalled since the foremost inventor and thinker in the US opposed a patent office. He felt that his inventions should be the property of all Americans. I read what Ortiz said at the GW commencement, and she violated all that she said. She is more motivated by personal advancement and fortunes, and I hope that she will NOT be allowed back.

  22. “I am simply too saddened by this death to enter into any long discussion.” -Blouise

    It’s heartbreaking…

  23. “How long was it before I learned instead that he actually was a ball of pure coruscation…” Rick Perlstein


    I had other plans for how to spend my Saturday. I had other plans for my next blog post here at The Nation. Then I learned my friend Aaron Swartz had committed suicide, facing a baseless, bullying federal indictment that might have sent him to jail for decades, and fate demanded this be a day to remember.

    I remember him contacting me out of the blue—was it in 2005?—and telling me I needed a website, and did I want him to build one for me? I smelled a hustle, asking him how much it would cost, and he said, no, he wanted to do it for free. I thought, What a loser this guy must be. Someone with nothing better to do.

    How long was it before I learned instead that he actually was a ball of pure coruscation…”


    Ball of coruscation = Aaron Swartz.

    A perfect description.

  24. Again, great links, DonS. JaneH. is on the right track.

    “Seberg’s family blamed the FBI for her death, just as activist Aaron Swartz’s family rightly blames his overly zealous prosecutors. Public intolerance for this kind of government harassment and abuse of power should be vigorous and swift, but sadly there’s no better way for careerists to make their bones at the DoJ or any other agency right now than to engage in the personal destruction of activists advocating for the freedom of information.

    Aaron Swartz isn’t the first victim of this war nor, sadly, will he be the last. His death is collateral damage in a war being waged by a ruthless government intent on protecting a secretive and unaccountable kleptocracy at all costs.

    It’s tragic that this lesson must be learned anew by every generation, it seems.” -Jane Hamsher (refer to the link provided by DonS, above)

  25. Bron, “intellectual property” is a made-up term in the fine spirit of P.T. Barnum, an excuse to keep throwing your money away because someone is “smarter.” The internet makes a mockery of such claims. Meshnets will see it stays that way. Not every human endeavor can be monetized, and making sacred “intellectual property” means we must first decide who the intellectuals are, and why do we care what they say?

    Intellectual property, copyrights and patents have no future. If people wish to pay for what you create so be it, No one should be compelled to purchase “intellectual property” from first-fit software posing as homo sapiens.

  26. This is another take on one portion of the Professor Turley’s note that “There is no question that Swartz crossed the line and broke into the system.:. From the blog Talkleft:

    “One misperception I keep reading online is that Aaron broke into the wiring closet at MIT to download the documents. There was no unauthorized entry or trespass into either the wiring closet or the university’s network. The wiring closet was not locked and was accessible to the public. If you look at the pictures supplied by the Government, you can see graffiti on one wall. This was not a hands-off area. Also, MIT had an open campus policy.It welcomed guests and invited them to log onto their network while on campus. It didn’t take steps to verify who logged on. Using a pseudonym when logged on is not a violation or a crime. ”


    This is all just detail around the edge of a very sad event. I’ve probably said more than enough already.

  27. http://archive.org/stream/GuerillaOpenAccessManifesto/Goamjuly2008_djvu.txt

    Brief excerpt:

    There is no justice in following unjust laws. It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.

    We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.

    With enough of us, around the world, we’ll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge — we’ll make it a thing of the past.

    Will you join us?

    Aaron Swartz

    July 2008, Eremo, Italy

  28. I’ve probably said more than enough already. -DonS

    I think it’s safe to say that you’re not alone. I’ve topped you, I’m certain… 😉

    Excellent links and insights …and I, for one, appreciated them all.

  29. I signed a petition at White House dot gov to fire Carmen Ortiz. I just did a search there and cannot find it again.

    Am I doing something wrong? Because that petition should still be up on the White House petition site.

  30. Aaron didn’t break into anything. He has access to the files via his Harvard connection. Harvard and MIT share access to JSTOR. Aaron’s “crime” was to over use that access.

  31. The petition appears to be intact, shano:


    ( I found it via Dan Kennedy’s article about Aaron:

    Aaron Swartz, Carmen Ortiz and the American System of Justice
    -Dan Kennedy, Assistant Professor, School of Journalism, Northeastern University

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dan-kennedy/aaron-swartz-carmen-ortiz_b_2469050.html )

  32. IMO, O’s fear goes to his concern that the truth might come out about the fake killing of Osama – who probably died in December 2001, and if that becomes widely known, then the dominoes start falling fast — conspiracy to kill JFK, Malcolm X, MLK, RFK, JFK jr., Senator Wellstone, Anthrax, 9/11,
    Apollo Moon Hoax ( Astronot Aldrin even claimed a UFO followed them “all the way to the Moon”… even though they never went out of low Earth orbit,
    the absurd official 9/11 conspiracy theory, Sandy Hook etc.

    Public can’t handle it. Even fairly intelligent JT followers swallow all the lies, so if THEY can’t handle the truth and are uninterested in learning it, the
    public would panic and who knows what might happen that would be used to justify the military bringing out the “long knives”.

  33. I wonder if there is any link between this kind of treatment of those who leak academic papers and how strongly President Obama had his academic papers sealed from public review.

  34. James in LA 1, January 14, 2013 at 2:03 pm

    ”Bron, “intellectual property” is a made-up term in the fine spirit of P.T. Barnum, an excuse to keep throwing your money away because someone is “smarter.” The internet makes a mockery of such claims. Meshnets will see it stays that way. Not every human endeavor can be monetized, and making sacred “intellectual property” means we must first decide who the intellectuals are, and why do we care what they say?

    Intellectual property, copyrights and patents have no future. If people wish to pay for what you create so be it, No one should be compelled to purchase “intellectual property” from first-fit software posing as homo sapiens.”

    arent people entitled to their work? it takes work/effort to create something. if their is no right to intellectual property then there is no right to a paycheck for the workers. All work is the result of mind and body. The mind cannot function without the brain.

  35. http://demandprogress.org/

    “We are working with Aaron’s friends, family, and colleagues to determine how best to pay tribute to him — it will surely entail engaging in political activism in service of making this world a more just one. We will be in touch with our members and the general public in the near future to offer suggestions about ways to move forward. Tragically, we’ll have to continue to stifle the visceral impulse to run our half-formed ideas by Aaron, to help us make them better ones.”

    (Blouise, I had intended to direct my earlier comment directly to you, but in haste… How many errors in this world are d/t haste? Too many… )

  36. Aaron Swartz was no doubt a great human being and his death is very sad. His prosecution was an absurdity. The criminalization of copyright enforcement is a terrible thing. This is and should have remained a civil issue. This is part of the over-criminalization trend overwhelming this country with the support of both political parties.

  37. Mike S.,

    You nailed the salient point: the criminalization of copyright. Part of the burden of IP and copyright is self-enforcement. It’s a price the IP holder pays for the protections afforded by civil remedy.

  38. Thank you so much for speaking out on this terrible tragedy for our nation, Jonathan. It is truly saddening that so few in the legal community seem to care about the harm that is being caused by the rapid erosion of our constitutional rights and rule of law in this country.

  39. Swartz was ahead of his time
    A victim cut-down in his prime
    His criminal deed
    To help those in need?
    I no longer understand “crime”

    The Limerick King

    R.I.P. Aaron Swartz…

  40. What a shame to loose a person like this. What have we lost? We will never know what a great mind like this might have come up with. How many others will we destroy, thus destroying whatever wonderful thing they may have come up with.
    What a shame.
    RIP Aaron, you are and will be missed.

  41. Bron, I do not feel entitled to a single thing in this universe or in any other. I am instead profoundly grateful for each draw of breath, and any work I perform is of my own choice. that work is best when it is based on service to those around me. Nor am I so arrogant to believe that if I hadn’t come with it, someone else would not have. Rather, COULD not have.

    If you feel entitled, I suggest that is where the rough patch lies. IP, patents, copyrights… no one is entitled to these and they will not last the century. They may not last even 30 more years. Meshnets are going to change it all, and IP, etc., will simply devolve back into the otherwise homogenous info-soup from which they arose. They were a really bad ideas.

  42. You say “There is no question that Swartz crossed the line and broke into the system. ” On what alleged acts are you basing this statement? Swartz had not been convicted of anything related to the MIT incident, had he?

  43. I think it’s important to remember that Obama is a “B er”, not a DO er, i.e.,
    he’s much more driven by the desire to BE president than to try to press an agenda, and THAT is an opening for liberals to press HIM. Otherwise, he’s content to protect and extend the interests of the wealthy — such as his own family. He likes the perks of being president and isn’t about to “fight” for much of anything that his rich supporters oppose.

  44. I’m no fan of show trials and I think most anyone could handle prosecutorial discretion better than the law and order, hall monitor-types that flock to the prosecutor’s office for jobs. Even so, I think our young Mr. Swartz had a lot to answer for. First, he broke into a public building and installed a hidden computer on a network over which he had no authority. He then proceeded to download millions of files. Being electronically stopped by JSTOR, he bought a second computer and again began automated downloading which caused MIT’s server to crash for several days. He damaged other computers and caused additional damages exceeding $5,000.00. While all of us here sympathize with his motivations, can we excuse outright violations of law in the name of activism? This is not Ghandi or Martin Luther King, Jr. we’re discussing. This is a 24 year-old prodigy hell-bent to get his way and, in the process, deprive JSTOR of its property. It is theft whether you agree with the law or not, and overcharging is the stock-in-trade of the prosecutor’s office as deplorable as the practice is. Did anyone really expected significant jail time? The principled thing to do after committing the act was to challenge the charges on the grounds he espoused. He took the less than courageous path to avoid proving his point and I, for one, have little sympathy for someone anxious to checkout before the fight. I reserve my admiration for folks who care to fight the long,hard battles within the system to make things better. Circumventing or breaking the law in service to one’s own sense of right and wrong is the battle cry of both the virtuous and the vile. It is justified in the rarest and most extreme of circumstances and, in my judgment, this is certainly not one of them.

  45. Serious typo above. It was JSTOR that declined to press charges. If MIT had also declined to press charges Aaron would still be alive.

  46. A federal prosecutor who engages in this kind of human rights violation should not have “prosecutorial immunity”. She and her bosses need to be charged with human rights violations. They are directly stifling the right of a person to petition his government for redress of grievances which is protected under the First Amendment. We know that they will go to Hell when their time comes but it is time to subject them to a trial for their human rights violations. God will punish them but Man has an obligation to do something to them while they are still on Earth.

  47. james in la:

    then why invent anything? some people, I would say most, invent something so they can make money which improves their lives and other’s lives. why would anyone spend years developing a product for which there was no protection of their equity whether it be sweat or money?

    I do agree with you that any number of people may have an idea, in fact I have had a couple but I did not take them to market, someone else did. They deserve the reward; they took the risk and spent the time to develop the idea into something marketable.

    I for one hope patents, copyrights and intellectual property protections stay in force.

  48. They will go after people like Swartz–but they rarely bring criminal charges against the biggest banksters. The corrupt banksters get away with paying fines. Here’s one recent example:

    HSBC to Pay $1.92 Billion to Settle Charges of Money Laundering

    State and federal authorities decided against indicting HSBC in a money-laundering case over concerns that criminal charges could jeopardize one of the world’s largest banks and ultimately destabilize the global financial system.

    Instead, HSBC announced on Tuesday that it had agreed to a record $1.92 billion settlement with authorities. The bank, which is based in Britain, faces accusations that it transferred billions of dollars for nations like Iran and enabled Mexican drug cartels to move money illegally through its American subsidiaries.

    While the settlement with HSBC is a major victory for the government, the case raises questions about whether certain financial institutions, having grown so large and interconnected, are too big to indict. Four years after the failure of Lehman Brothers nearly toppled the financial system, regulators are still wary that a single institution could undermine the recovery of the industry and the economy.

    But the threat of criminal prosecution acts as a powerful deterrent. If authorities signal such actions are remote for big banks, the threat could lose its sting.

    Behind the scenes, authorities debated for months the advantages and perils of a criminal indictment against HSBC.

    Some prosecutors at the Justice Department’s criminal division and the Manhattan district attorney’s office wanted the bank to plead guilty to violations of the federal Bank Secrecy Act, according to the officials with direct knowledge of the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The law requires financial institutions to report any cash transaction of $10,000 or more and to bring any dubious activity to the attention of regulators.

    Given the extent of the evidence against HSBC, some prosecutors saw the charge as a healthy compromise between a settlement and a harsher money-laundering indictment. While the charge would most likely tarnish the bank’s reputation, some officials argued that it would not set off a series of devastating consequences.

  49. ““Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, whether you take documents, data or dollars,” Ortiz said after Swartz’s arrest. “It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away.”

    That moral sense was joined by the righteousness of a legal eminence’s son. The younger Heymann had in recent years been taking half a step away from his father’s shadow, and making a bit of a name for himself as a prosecutor of cyber-crimes.

    “They’re very serious and their job is very serious and they’re very serious about it and this is a very serious matter and this is how it is going to be,” Peters says of the prosecution in the Swartz case. “They made their position very clear. They believed they had to seek prison time and multiple felony convictions in this case.”

    The best deal the prosecutors would offer was four months in prison with Swartz pleading guilty to 13 felonies. And they warned Peters that his client had better take it while he still could.

    “They told me over and over again that the offer had been on the table,” Peters says. “And any future offer would be less attractive.” Daily Beast

  50. “An Incredible Soul”: Larry Lessig Remembers Aaron Swartz After Cyberactivist’s Suicide Before Trial; Parents Blame Prosecutor

    Two brief excerpts:

    AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what the case against Aaron was? Explain what happened.

    LAWRENCE LESSIG: Well, I have to be very careful, because when Aaron was arrested, he came to me, and I—there was a period of time where I acted as his lawyer. So, I know more about the case than I’m able to talk about.

    But here’s what was alleged. Aaron was stopped as he left MIT. He had a computer in his possession, which there was tape that indicated that he had connected the computer to a server—to a closet in MIT, and the allegation was he had downloaded a significant portion of JSTOR. Now, JSTOR is a nonprofit website that has been for—since about 1996, has been trying to build an archive of online—giving online access to academic journal articles, you know, like the Harvard Law Review or journal articles from geography from the 1900s. It’s an extraordinary library of information. And the claim was Aaron had downloaded a significant portion of that. And the question, the obvious question that was in everybody’s mind, was: Why? What was he doing this for? And so, the Cambridge police arrested Aaron.

    JSTOR said, “We don’t want to prosecute. We don’t want to civilly prosecute. We don’t want you to criminally prosecute.” But MIT was not as clear. And the federal government—remember, at the time, there was the Bradley Manning and the WikiLeaks issue going on. The federal government thought it was really important to make—make an example. And so, they brought this incredibly ridiculous prosecution that had multiple—you know, I think it was something like more than—more than a dozen counts claiming felony violations against Aaron, threatening, you know, scores of years in prison. But, you know, it’s not the theoretical claims about what he might have gotten; it was the practical burden that for the last two years, you know, his wealth was bled dry as he had to negotiate to try to finally settle this matter, because the government was not going to stop before he admitted that he was a felon, which I think, you know, in a world where the architects of the financial crisis dine regularly at the White House, it’s ridiculous to think Aaron Swartz was a felon.


    LAWRENCE LESSIG: Yeah, Aaron was depressed. He was rationally depressed. You know, he was losing everything, because his government was overreaching in the most ridiculous way to persecute him, not just because of this, but because of what he had done before, liberating government documents that were supposed to be in the public domain. Of course he was depressed. He wasn’t depressed because he had no loving parents—he did have loving parents who did everything they could for him—or because he didn’t have loving friends. Every time you saw Aaron, he was surrounded by five or 10 different people who loved and respected and worked with him. He was depressed because he was increasingly recognizing that the idealism he brought to this fight maybe wasn’t enough. When he saw all of his wealth gone, and he recognized his parents were going to have to mortgage their house so he could afford a lawyer to fight a government that treated him as if he were a 9/11 terrorist, as if what he was doing was threatening the infrastructure of the United States, when he saw that and he recognized how—how incredibly difficult that fight was going to be, of course he was depressed.

    Now, you know, I’m not a psychiatrist. I don’t know whether there was something wrong with him because of—you know, beyond the rational reason he had to be depressed, but I don’t—I don’t—I don’t have patience for people who want to say, “Oh, this was just a crazy person; this was just a person with a psychological problem who killed himself.” No. This was somebody—this was somebody who was pushed to the edge by what I think of as a kind of bullying by our government. A bullying by our government. And just as we hold people responsible when their bullying leads to tragedy, I hope Carmen Ortiz does what MIT did and hold—

    AMY GOODMAN: The U.S. attorney.

    LAWRENCE LESSIG: The U.S. attorney—and lead an investigation, ask somebody independent to look at what happened here and explain to America: Is this what the United States government is?

  51. “Swartz and his lawyers were not looking for a free pass. They had offered to accept a deferred prosecution or probation, so that if Swartz pulled a stunt like that again, he would end up in prison.

    Marty Weinberg, who took the case over from Good, said he nearly negotiated a plea bargain in which Swartz would not serve any time. He said JSTOR signed off on it, but MIT would not. ” Boston Globe

  52. ap:

    “If you could source that…”


    Paragraphs 27-8 of the indictment:

    27. On January 4, 2011, Aaron Swartz was observed entering the restricted basement network wiring closet to replace an external hard drive attached to his computer.
    28. On January 6, 2011, Swartz returned to the wiring closet to remove his computer equipment. This time he attempted to evade identification at the entrance to the restricted area.
    As Swartz entered the wiring closet, he held his bicycle helmet like a mask to shield his face, looking through ventilation holes in the helmet. Swartz then removed his computer equipment from the closet, put it in his backpack, and left, again masking his face with the bicycle helmet
    before peering through a crack in the double doors and cautiously stepping out.


  53. ap:

    One telling comment:

    “I was the expert witness on Aaron’s side of US vs Swartz, engaged by his attorneys last year to help prepare a defense for his April trial.”

    Sadly, Mr. Stamos will never get the chance to have his opinion tested. Right now he holds all the expert cards. I wonder how he would have held up in court. He may have carried the day and convinced the jury this was merely inconsiderate as opposed to criminal behavior. Then again he may have been seen as a mouth for hire. We’ll never know. That was Swartz’s call.

  54. Question by anonymously posted 1, January 15, 2013 at 8:34 am

    First, he broke into a public building -mespo727272

    If you could source that…

    Response by mespo727272 1, January 15, 2013 at 9:07 am

    Paragraphs 27-8 of the indictment:

    27. On January 4, 2011, Aaron Swartz was observed entering the restricted basement network wiring closet to replace an external hard drive attached to his computer.
    28. On January 6, 2011, Swartz returned to the wiring closet to remove his computer equipment. This time he attempted to evade identification at the entrance to the restricted area.
    As Swartz entered the wiring closet, he held his bicycle helmet like a mask to shield his face, looking through ventilation holes in the helmet. Swartz then removed his computer equipment from the closet, put it in his backpack, and left, again masking his face with the bicycle helmet
    before peering through a crack in the double doors and cautiously stepping out.




    You said “he broke into a public building.” I don’t see that in the indictment.

    As I understand it, the wiring closet was unlocked.

  55. mespo727272

    Yes, he’s an expert witness, so that’s something to consider, to be sure. There are many things that we’ll never know — you’re certainly right about that.


    The full posting is worth reading, IMO. An excerpt below.

    The Truth about Aaron Swartz’s “Crime”



    Should you doubt my neutrality, let me establish my bona fides. I have led the investigation of dozens of computer crimes, from Latvian hackers blackmailing a stock brokerage to Chinese government-backed attacks against dozens of American enterprises. I have investigated small insider violations of corporate policy to the theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and have responded to break-ins at social networks, e-tailers and large banks. While we are no stranger to pro bono work, having served as experts on EFF vs Sony BMG and Sony vs Hotz, our reports have also been used in the prosecution of at least a half dozen attackers. In short, I am no long-haired-hippy-anarchist who believes that anything goes on the Internet. I am much closer to the stereotypical capitalist-white-hat sellout that the antisec people like to rant about (and steal mail spools from) in the weeks before BlackHat.

    I know a criminal hack when I see it, and Aaron’s downloading of journal articles from an unlocked closet is not an offense worth 35 years in jail.

    The facts:

    MIT operates an extraordinarily open network. Very few campus networks offer you a routable public IP address via unauthenticated DHCP and then lack even basic controls to prevent abuse. Very few captured portals on wired networks allow registration by any visitor, nor can they be easily bypassed by just assigning yourself an IP address. In fact, in my 12 years of professional security work I have never seen a network this open.
    In the spirit of the MIT ethos, the Institute runs this open, unmonitored and unrestricted network on purpose. Their head of network security admitted as much in an interview Aaron’s attorneys and I conducted in December. MIT is aware of the controls they could put in place to prevent what they consider abuse, such as downloading too many PDFs from one website or utilizing too much bandwidth, but they choose not to.
    MIT also chooses not to prompt users of their wireless network with terms of use or a definition of abusive practices.
    At the time of Aaron’s actions, the JSTOR website allowed an unlimited number of downloads by anybody on MIT’s 18.x Class-A network. The JSTOR application lacked even the most basic controls to prevent what they might consider abusive behavior, such as CAPTCHAs triggered on multiple downloads, requiring accounts for bulk downloads, or even the ability to pop a box and warn a repeat downloader.
    Aaron did not “hack” the JSTOR website for all reasonable definitions of “hack”. Aaron wrote a handful of basic python scripts that first discovered the URLs of journal articles and then used curl to request them. Aaron did not use parameter tampering, break a CAPTCHA, or do anything more complicated than call a basic command line tool that downloads a file in the same manner as right-clicking and choosing “Save As” from your favorite browser.
    Aaron did nothing to cover his tracks or hide his activity, as evidenced by his very verbose .bash_history, his uncleared browser history and lack of any encryption of the laptop he used to download these files. Changing one’s MAC address (which the government inaccurately identified as equivalent to a car’s VIN number) or putting a mailinator email address into a captured portal are not crimes. If they were, you could arrest half of the people who have ever used airport wifi.
    The government provided no evidence that these downloads caused a negative effect on JSTOR or MIT, except due to silly overreactions such as turning off all of MIT’s JSTOR access due to downloads from a pretty easily identified user agent.
    I cannot speak as to the criminal implications of accessing an unlocked closet on an open campus, one which was also used to store personal effects by a homeless man. I would note that trespassing charges were dropped against Aaron and were not part of the Federal case.

    In short, Aaron Swartz was not the super hacker breathlessly described in the Government’s indictment and forensic reports, and his actions did not pose a real danger to JSTOR, MIT or the public. He was an intelligent young man who found a loophole that would allow him to download a lot of documents quickly. This loophole was created intentionally by MIT and JSTOR, and was codified contractually in the piles of paperwork turned over during discovery.

    If I had taken the stand as planned and had been asked by the prosecutor whether Aaron’s actions were “wrong”, I would probably have replied that what Aaron did would better be described as “inconsiderate”. In the same way it is inconsiderate to write a check at the supermarket while a dozen people queue up behind you or to check out every book at the library needed for a History 101 paper. It is inconsiderate to download lots of files on shared wifi or to spider Wikipedia too quickly, but none of these actions should lead to a young person being hounded for years and haunted by the possibility of a 35 year sentence.

    Professor Lessig will always write more eloquently than I can on prosecutorial discretion and responsibility, but I certainly agree that Aaron’s death demands a great deal of soul searching by the US Attorney who decided to massively overcharge this young man and the MIT administrators who decided to involve Federal law enforcement.

    I cannot speak as to all of the problems that contributed to Aaron’s death, but I do strongly believe that he did not deserve the treatment he received while he was alive. It is incumbent on all of us to figure out how to create some positive change out of this unnecessary tragedy. I’ll write more on that later. First I need to spend some time hugging my kids.

  56. mespo727272

    You said “he broke into a public building.” I don’t see that in the indictment.

    As I understand it, the wiring closet was unlocked.


    The building at MIT was open to the public — in certain areas — hence the characterization. And lest you think what he didn’t wasn’t breaking in, the next time you arrive home to find someone rifling through your living room with the excuse that you left the door open please memorialize your reaction for us.

  57. First off in your home the person would be charged with trespass, a misdemeanor. It is NOT even that if it takes place in a public building or one which has public access. Thus no foul.

  58. mespo727272

    You said “he broke into a public building.” I don’t see that in the indictment.

    As I understand it, the wiring closet was unlocked.


    The building at MIT was open to the public — in certain areas — hence the characterization. And lest you think what he didn’t wasn’t breaking in, the next time you arrive home to find someone rifling through your living room with the excuse that you left the door open please memorialize your reaction for us.


    Again, you said he “broke into a public building.” Under the law, as you know, trespassing is one thing, while breaking and entering, quite another. The trespassing charge was dropped, as I understand it.

    You said, “The next time you arrive home to find someone rifling through your living room with the excuse that you left the door open please memorialize your reaction for us.”

    That’s truly funny. If you only knew…, but this is about Aaron Swartz, not me. But since you’ve personalized it, I’ll just say that the phrase “high horse” comes to mind.

  59. Better to talk about the violations cited in the indictment, rather than misrepresenting the situation:


    Crim. No.

    18 U.S.C. § 1343 (Wire Fraud)

    18 U.S.C. § 1030(a)(4) (Computer Fraud)

    18 U.S.C. § 1030(a)(2), (c)(2)(B)(iii)
    (Unlawfully Obtaining Information from a
    Protected Computer)

    18 U.S.C. § 1030(a)(5)(B), (c)(4)(A)(i)(I),(VI)
    (Recklessly Damaging a Protected Computer)

    18 U.S.C. § 2 (Aiding and Abetting)

    18 U.S.C. § 981(a)(1)(C), 28 U.S.C. § 2461(c),
    and 18 U.S.C. §982(a)(2)(B) (Criminal

  60. Ah, ‘we’ who have little patience for “technicalities”, as opposed to “it’s either the law or not”. Doesn’t leave much in the way of compassion for Mr. Swartz. Due to the disproportionality of power, I fully concur he was bullied The reasons for suicide are never fully cognizable, nor one sided, nor pleasant for those left behind.

    But, given that the “victims” of Swartz’s crime primarily seem to sympathize with the intention — including the many tribute publications by the authors of material “stolen” — I am willing to call the prosecutors vengeance a vendetta hanging on the all the legal niceties and presumptions and inferences she could muster.

  61. (p.s., here’s a repost from upthread that’s been held up for moderation (not sure why, but I’ll try again, and attempt to get duplications eliminated)

    excerpt from Larry Lessig blog:

    “Aaron had literally done nothing in his life “to make money.”. . . Aaron was always and only working for (at least his conception of) the public good. He was brilliant, and funny. A kid genius. A soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think? That person is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying. I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.

    “For remember, we live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White House — and where even those brought to “justice” never even have to admit any wrongdoing, let alone be labeled “felons.”

    “In that world, the question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a “felon.” For in the 18 months of negotiations, that was what he was not willing to accept, and so that was the reason he was facing a million dollar trial in April — his wealth bled dry, yet 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. And so as wrong and misguided and f——g sad as this is, I get how the prospect of this fight, defenseless, made it make sense to this brilliant but troubled boy to end it.

    “Fifty years in jail, charges our government. Somehow, we need to get beyond the “I’m right so I’m right to nuke you” ethics that dominates our time. That begins with one word: Shame.

  62. DonS:

    I have plenty of compassion and sympathy for Swartz’s family, friends, and colleagues, and even some admiration and appreciation or his adventurous spirit as well as sympathy for his “cause.”. However, I do not understand people who claim this criminal charge pushed him over the edge into suicide. Here’s a wealthy, young, genius who had the gumption to knowingly defy the law in service to his own standards. There are plenty of criminal defendants facing more serious charges with less of a financial and social support system in vastly more conservative law and order jurisdictions than Massachusetts who face their charges without taking their own lives in the process.

    Swartz appears to have been a good kid who made a serious mistake and who took his own life for reasons known only to himself. In my humble opinion, any other take on the topic appears to be more about the biases or prejudices of the observer and less about the manifest facts.

    I appreciate a principled iconoclast. I just appreciate somebody who plays by the rules more. That’s harder and less lucrative.

  63. ap:

    Again, you said he “broke into a public building.”


    “Breaking” means traversing the curtilage which defines the boundary between private and public areas, not breaking a lock or security device. Any force to gain entry such as opening the closet door would be enough to satisfy the legal requirement under the common law as long as he did so with the intent to commit a crime. We can debate the nuances of criminal law or semantics but is there really any doubt that he was present where he was not authorized to be with the intention to commit a illegal hack and that he gained access through his own deceptive actions?

  64. January 14, 2013

    How the Legal System Failed Aaron Swartz—And Us

    by Tim Wu, Professor, Columbia Law School


    The act was harmless—not in the sense of hypothetical damages or the circular logic of deterrence theory (that’s lawyerly logic), but in John Stuart Mill’s sense, meaning that there was no actual physical harm, nor actual economic harm. The leak was found and plugged; JSTOR suffered no actual economic loss. It did not press charges. Like a pie in the face, Swartz’s act was annoying to its victim, but of no lasting consequence.

    In this sense, Swartz must be compared to two other eccentric geniuses, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who, in the nineteen-seventies, committed crimes similar to, but more economically damaging than, Swartz’s. Those two men hacked A.T. & T.’s telephone system to make free long-distance calls, and actually sold the illegal devices (blue boxes) to make cash. Their mentor, John Draper, did go to jail for a few months (where he wrote one of the world’s first word processors), but Jobs and Wozniak were never prosecuted. Instead, they got bored of phreaking and built a computer. The great ones almost always operate at the edge.

    It’s one thing to stretch the law to stop a criminal syndicate or terrorist organization. It’s quite another when prosecuting a reckless young man. The prosecutors forgot that, as public officials, their job isn’t to try and win at all costs but to use the awesome power of criminal law to protect the public from actual harm. Ortiz has not commented on the case. But, had she been in charge when Jobs and Wozniak were breaking the laws, we might never have had Apple computers. It was at this moment that our legal system and our society utterly failed.

    Defenders of the prosecution seem to think that anyone charged with a felony must somehow deserve punishment. That idea can only be sustained without actual exposure to the legal system. Yes, most of the time prosecutors do chase actual wrongdoers, but today our criminal laws are so expansive that most people of any vigor and spirit can be found to violate them in some way. Basically, under American law, anyone interesting is a felon. The prosecutors, not the law, decide who deserves punishment.

    Today, prosecutors feel they have license to treat leakers of information like crime lords or terrorists. In an age when our frontiers are digital, the criminal system threatens something intangible but incredibly valuable. It threatens youthful vigor, difference in outlook, the freedom to break some rules and not be condemned or ruined for the rest of your life. Swartz was a passionate eccentric who could have been one of the great innovators and creators of our future. Now we will never know.

    Tim Wu is a professor at Columbia Law School and the author of “The Master Switch.”

    Read more: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2013/01/everyone-interesting-is-a-felon.html#ixzz2I42hjwDq

  65. anonymously posted 1, January 15, 2013 at 4:17 pm

    Aaron Swartz’s Politics

    Tuesday, 15 January 2013 14:22 By Matt Stoller,



    Aaron suffered from depression, but that is not why he died. Aaron is dead because the institutions that govern our society have decided that it is more important to target geniuses like Aaron than nurture them, because the values he sought – openness, justice, curiosity – are values these institutions now oppose. In previous generations, people like Aaron would have been treasured and recognized as the remarkable gifts they are. We do not live in a world like that today. And Aaron would be the first to point out, if he could observe the discussion happening now, that the pressure he felt from the an oppressive government is felt by millions of people, every year. I’m glad his family have not let the justice system off the hook, and have not allowed this suicide to be medicalized, or the fault of one prosecutor. What happened to Aaron is not isolated to Aaron, but is the flip side of the corruption he hated.

    As we think about what happened to Aaron, we need to recognize that it was not just prosecutorial overreach that killed him. That’s too easy, because that implies it’s one bad apple. We know that’s not true. What killed him was corruption. Corruption isn’t just people profiting from betraying the public interest. It’s also people being punished for upholding the public interest. In our institutions of power, when you do the right thing and challenge abusive power, you end up destroying a job prospect, an economic opportunity, a political or social connection, or an opportunity for media. Or if you are truly dangerous and brilliantly subversive, as Aaron was, you are bankrupted and destroyed. There’s a reason whistleblowers get fired. There’s a reason Bradley Manning is in jail. There’s a reason the only CIA official who has gone to jail for torture is the person – John Kiriako – who told the world it was going on. There’s a reason those who destroyed the financial system “dine at the White House”, as Lawrence Lessig put it. There’s a reason former Senator Russ Feingold is a college professor whereas former Senator Chris Dodd is now a multi-millionaire. There’s a reason DOJ officials do not go after bankers who illegally foreclose, and then get jobs as partners in white collar criminal defense. There’s a reason no one has been held accountable for decisions leading to the financial crisis, or the war in Iraq. This reason is the modern ethic in American society that defines success as climbing up the ladder, consequences be damned. Corrupt self-interest, when it goes systemwide, demands that it protect rentiers from people like Aaron, that it intimidate, co-opt, humiliate, fire, destroy, and/or bankrupt those who stand for justice.

    More prosaically, the person who warned about the downside in a meeting gets cut out of the loop, or the former politician who tries to reform an industry sector finds his or her job opportunities sparse and unappealing next to his soon to be millionaire go along get along colleagues. I’ve seen this happen to high level former officials who have done good, and among students who challenge power as their colleagues go to become junior analysts on Wall Street. And now we’ve seen these same forces kill our friend.

    It’s important for us to recognize that Aaron is just an extreme example of a force that targets all of us. He eschewed the traditional paths to wealth and power, dropping out of college after a year because it wasn’t intellectually stimulating. After co-founding and selling Reddit, and establishing his own financial security, he wandered and acted, calling himself an “applied sociologist.” He helped in small personal ways, offering encouragement to journalists like Mike Elk after Elk had broken a significant story and gotten pushback from colleagues. In my inbox, every birthday, I got a lovely note from Aaron offering me encouragement and telling me how much he admired my voice. He was a profoundly kind man, and I will now never be able to repay him for the love and kindness he showed me. There’s no medal of honor for someone like this, no Oscar, no institutional way of saying “here’s someone who did a lot of good for a lot of people.” This is because our institutions are corrupt, and wanted to quelch the Aaron Swartz’s of the world. Ultimately, they killed him. I hope that we remember Aaron in the way he should be remembered, as a hero and an inspiration.

    In six days, on January 18th, it’s the one year anniversary of the blackout of Wikipedia, and some have discussed celebrating it as Internet Freedom Day. Maybe we should call this Aaron Swartz Day, in honor of this heroic figure. While what happened that day was technically about the internet, it should be remembered, and Aaron should be remembered, in the context of social justice. That day was about a call for a different world, not just protecting our ability to access web sites. And we should remember these underlying values. It would help people understand that justice can be extremely costly, and that we risk much when we allow those who do the right thing to be punished. Somehow, we need to rebuild a culture that respects people like Aaron and turns away from the greed and rent-extraction that he hated. There’s a cycle in American history, of religious “Great Awakenings”, where new cultural systems emerge in the form of religion, often sweeping through communities of young people dissatisfied with the society they see around them. Perhaps that is what we see in the Slow Food movement, or gay rights movement, or the spread of walkable communities and decline of vehicle miles, or maker movement, or the increasing acceptance of meditation and therapy, or any number of other cultural changes in our society. I don’t know. I’m sure many of these can be subverted. What I do know is that if we are to honor Aaron’s life, we will recognize him as a broad social justice activist who cared about transforming our society, and acted to do so. And we will take up his fight as our own.

    Leave a Reply

  66. Mespo, your response (“I appreciate a principled iconoclast. I just appreciate somebody who plays by the rules more. That’s harder and less lucrative.”) feels to me like the reasoning I surmised. And, I to, recognize the need for stability and playing by the rule in the vast majority of situations. Pretty much it’s how I’ve lived my life.

    But I also recognize extraordinary circumstances — in this case probably prosecutorial overreach, even persecutory intent, and what seems like a backdrop of governmental highhandedness in pursing an anti-democratic agenda — and am not willing to summarily condemn Swartz based on his tactics.

    And I have no doubt that he, or anyone in similar circumstances, including his ambient mental state, could be “pushed over the edge” by the combination of circumstances, regardless of the apparent external factors that would seem to classify his life and conditions as good, if not enviable. One could find that the magnitude of his good fortune itself, and the whiplash of being dragged through the legal mire, was an exacerbating factor, not an ameliorating one.

    I’ll defer to your analysis of the legal implications, though not even nearly the purity of the prosecution. But as to the psychological outcome, and suicide, if it was suicide, that is not a matter of post hoc rational argument that makes sense. The seriously depressed mind does not think in such rational terms.

  67. DonS:

    “The seriously depressed mind does not think in such rational terms.”


    I agree with most all of what you said. In fact, the reason I’m taking the position I am is to remind all of us we are all too willing to jump to every conclusion that meets our mindset. i.e, He was driven to suicide, The prosecutor is vindictive, The kid did nothing wrong.

    This was our exact criticism of George Bush and his administration as I recall. And all of it without any proof save statements from friends, “yes men,” and paid experts. Does Curveball ring any bells?

    Let’s wait to see what happens before we vilify anyone who dares to disagree with us.

  68. Hello, Professor. Long time, no e. Some points of clarification.

    1. MIT did NOT drop the charges against Swartz. JSTOR did, but MIT was, in Lessig’s words, “not as clear” in what it wanted done with the Swartz case.

    2. JSTOR, as I understand it, is separate from MIT. JSTOR is an academic journal archive that is primarily, but not entirely, subscription-based. MIT subscribed to JSTOR to provide its library of journal articles to MIT students.

    3. As I said, JSTOR mostly, but not entirely, subscription-based. The subscribers are academic institutions, whose subscriptions grant unlimited access. But most JSTOR articles can also be purchased a la carte by individuals and members of the general public for usually $10-$20 apiece. I’ve purchased articles from JSTOR myself. But a significant percentage of articles were classified as for academic institutions only and not accessible to the general public for reasons that are unclear.

    4. Swartz allegedly used the MIT network and the unlimited access to JSTOR granted by the subscription to try to download all of JSTOR’s library to post them on the internet for free, and was successful in downloading, as i understand it, 2-4 million articles. I won’t get into the right or wrong of Swartz’ actions. But calculating using the a la carte figures, they were potentially worth $20 million-$40 million. Were they realistically worth that? Not likely. But while Swartz apparently did not intend to make money off the articles himself, his actions could have denied that money to JSTOR, a non-profit.

    5. Again, JSTOR dropped the charges on Swartz, but MIT did not. As I understand it, it was also MIT and not JSTOR that tried to block Swartz’s access to the network.

    6. Whether Swartz violated any law is very questionable here. He may have intended to violate the license for MIT and its students to use JSTOR articles, but that is not a federal crime. Moreover, as I understand it, MIT’s network is open as a matter of school policy, so Swartz did not technically hack into it. The room Swartz accessed was also unlocked and accessible to everyone. The only thing even dishonest about what Swartz did was use a fake name to sign on to the MIT network.

    7. Swartz was widely known to suffer from clinical depression. I am a bit saddened by comments on here that suggest at best a lack of understanding of clinical depression, at worst a lack of sympathy and compassion for its victims. Swartz’s clinical depression should not be used against him.

    8. And I’m concerned that’s exactly what the Feds did here. A lot of legal observers have criticized the overcharging here, though that is an old and legitimate tactic to get confessions and plea agreements. Far more troubling is the Feds unwillingness to bargain with Swartz. With JSTOR backing off, it’s not clear to me what was to be gained by this prosecution or by the heavy pressure brought down on Swartz. The Feds were not willing to budge on felony convictions and jail time for Swartz for a crime whose status as malum in se was questionable and whose victim wanted dropped.

    My major question is, did the Feds try to use Swartz’s depression against him to get him to crack and cop to an unreasonable plea deal?

    And, if so, is that ethical? Legally? Morally?

    More thoughts here http://www.no-boxes-allowed.blogspot.com/2013/01/aaron-swartz-and-manipulation-of-mental.html?m=1

  69. Breaking Someone With The Law
    By Charles P. Pierce

    COMMON MAN (Comes to the center of the stage, having taken off his mask): I’m breathing . . . Are you breathing too? . . . It’s nice, isn’t it? It isn’t difficult to keep alive, friends. Just don’t make trouble or if you must make trouble, make the sort of trouble that’s expected.

    — Robert Bolt, A Man For All Seasons, Act II.

    The Boston Globe went long this morning on the death by suicide of Aaron Swartz — most of which, ironically, is behind the newspaper’s paywall — including a close examination of the relentless breaking-a-butterfly-on-a-wheel pursuit of the young activist by the office of United States Attorney Carmen Ortiz up here in Boston, as well as a deep look into the complicity in that pursuit by the administration at MIT. Kevin Cullen, the best cityside columnist in America now that Breslin’s hung ’em up, weighed in as well.

    If it was beyond scandalous that Aaron Swartz was facing prison time for downloading a bunch of obscure academic treatises, it is beyond tragic that he is now dead. Swartz, 26, hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment last Friday, and while we will never know for sure why, many who know him best say that prosecutors bullied him to the grave. At the least, prosecutors lacked proportionality and basic humanity and they tried to imprison an emotionally vulnerable young man who didn’t make a penny from his alleged crimes.

    (Ortiz is still considered something of a political comer here in the Commonwealth (God save it!). Good luck running for office, Carmen, with every hacker in the known universe targeting every campaign you ever run for the rest of your life. Local media writer Dan Kennedy detailed how there’s been more than a whiff of the authoritarian surrounding Ortiz’s whole career as a prosecutor, specifically in regards to free speech.)

    I spent a long time thinking about this case. I needed to disentangle the personal from the political in the death of someone I did not know. I needed to understand, at least feebly, what it was that Swartz did in his life and his activism. I needed to try to understand, at least feebly, what it was that Swartz did and why so many people decided to break so much rock in his pursuit. I came to only two conclusions.

    The first is that every government ever conceived has taken as a kind of internal imperative that the governed out there cannot be trusted with too much information. Of course, the Founders said a lot of brave things about how an informed populace is necessary to the survival of self-government. Jefferson said he’d prefer newspapers without a government rather than the reverse. John Adams talked about the “indisputable, indefeasable, divine” right of the people to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge…of the conduct and characters of their rulers.” Once in high political office, however, even these guys behaved the way that rulers always behave. Too much information dispersed too widely may be essential to self-government, but it also can be a threat to the public order, and we cannot have that, even if later generations will cast us in marble and make HBO miniseries about how great we are.

    There is no longer any question that the current administration has decided that the people have an “indisputable, indefeasible, divine right” to only that information which the administration sees fit to release. It has pursued leakers with a vigor that would have impressed the late Egil (Bud) Krogh, except using U.S. Attorneys and not Cuban burglars for hire. It has slapped Bradley Manning into what passes in the 21st Century for a dungeon. It has made a cartoon villain out of the WikiLeaks phenomenon, and out of Julian Assange in particular. I believe that part of the reason that it has adopted the laughable “Look forward and not back” legal strategy as regards to the people guilty of torture, and as regards to the people who wrecked the economy, is that it doesn’t want the detailed information about either of those scandals released to the public, which cannot be trusted to behave itself properly. And this administration pursued Aaron Swartz not because he downloaded information, but because he dispersed it. It was the dissemination of the information that brought down on him the abandoned wrath of Carmen Ortiz and her superiors in Washington. It was because Aaron Swartz told us what he knew…

    Which brings me to my second conclusion — Aaron Swartz ran facefirst into a law-enforcement and prosecutorial culture that we have allowed to run amok for far too long. It began with drugs. It intensified with the “war on terror.” Preventive detention — though they don’t call it that — has been mainstreamed, due process sacrificed to efficiency. Investigation without cause has been normalized in our daily lives, through mandatory drug testing and roadblocks and a dozen other ways we barely think about any more. Personal privacy has been rendered less important than official secrecy in the general scheme of things. We want — nay, demand convictions, and all barriers to them be damned.

  70. “Good luck running for office, Carmen, with every hacker in the known universe targeting every campaign you ever run for the rest of your life.” (From Elaine’s post)


  71. Elaine,

    Yes, I did … I thought I’d gotten it on your recommendation but maybe it was lotts’s … anyway … I’ve loaned it to several people who all enjoyed it.

  72. Aaron Swartz Case ‘Snowballed Out Of MIT’s Hands,’ Source Says
    By Gerry Smith

    Aaron Swartz and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology seemed to hold similar beliefs about open access on the Internet.

    Swartz, a well-known Internet activist, believed that copyrighted information should be made freely available online. MIT was one of the first universities to grant access to its course materials and professors’ scholarly articles without charge to anyone with an Internet connection.

    But when Swartz was caught using MIT’s network to download academic journals and share them online, the university contacted law enforcement — which led to the involvement of the Secret Service — and helped federal authorities build their case against him.

    Privately, several MIT officials expressed concerns that prosecutors were “overreaching” by charging Swartz with federal crimes that carried a sentence of up to 35 years in prison, according to a MIT employee familiar with the investigation.

    But by then, it was too late. “By the time this thing snowballed out of MIT’s hands, it was gone,” said the employee, who asked not to be named because he still works at the university. “When the federal government chooses to prosecute, you don’t get to say no.”

    On Friday, Swartz, 26, was found dead in his apartment of an apparent suicide. He was facing trial in April for allegedly stealing millions of scholarly journal articles from the digital archive JSTOR using MIT’s network. Before his death, federal prosecutors told Swartz and his attorney that he could spend six months behind bars and plead guilty to 13 federal crimes, but they rejected the offer, believing they could win at trial, his attorney told the Boston Globe.

    Swartz suffered from depression, and his reasons for taking his own life remain unclear. But his supporters say that his looming federal trial was a contributing factor in his death and they blame prosecutors and MIT for pursuing the case.

    On Tuesday, mourners paid tribute to Swartz during an emotional funeral service in his hometown of Highland Park, Ill. During the service, Swartz’s father was quoted as saying his son “was killed by the government, and MIT betrayed all of its basic principles.”

    MIT is planning an investigation of its involvement with the federal case against Swartz. Professor Hal Abelson, who is leading the internal investigation, declined to comment Tuesday about MIT’s role in the case, saying he had not yet begun his inquiry. “Right now, people need time to think about Aaron,” Abelson said.

    The university’s decision to contact law enforcement in Swartz’s case appeared to run counter to its history of embracing computer hackers and open access to information on the Internet. In 2009, MIT faculty voted unanimously to make their scholarly articles available for free online. The decision emphasized MIT’s “commitment to disseminating the fruits of its research and scholarship as widely as possible,” according to a university press release.

    “The vote is a signal to the world that we speak in a unified voice; that what we value is the free flow of ideas,” MIT faculty chair Bish Sinyal said at the time.

    Abelson said the university had, at times, struggled to create policies that were consistent with those values. “At MIT there’s always been an appreciation of the value of hacking and being more flexible,” he said in an interview. “But there are always hard decisions about how that works out in terms of policy.”

    At the time of his alleged offenses, Swartz was a fellow at Harvard University, not a student at MIT, but his lawyers argued that MIT’s Internet policy allowed unfettered use of its network. Unlike other universities, MIT did not require a password or any affiliation with the school to access servers and digital libraries, Swartz’s lawyers said in court filings.

    MIT’s network lacked “even basic controls to prevent abuse,” such as preventing users from downloading too many PDFs or utilizing too much bandwidth, said Alex Stamos, a computer security researcher who planned to testify as an expert witness on Swartz’s behalf during his upcoming trial.

  73. I’m Rep Zoe Lofgren & I’m introducing “Aaron’s Law” to change the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) (lofgren.house.gov)
    submitted 1 hour ago by ZoeLofgren

    [–]lessig 51 points 51 minutes ago
    Hey, this is a CRITICALLY important change that would do incredible good. The CFAA was the hook for the government’s bullying of @aaronsw. This law would remove that hook. In a single line: no longer would it be a felony to breach a contract. Let’s get this done for Aaron — now.

    On Reddit just now. Anyone able to explain what they are talking about?

  74. Once again, arrogant prosecutors set out to destroy a human life, knowing full well that they faced no accountability whatsoever. All they needed to do was “expand the law” a bit to accomplish their horrifying goal: no human being can be expected to withstand such pressure. Those who did nothing to stop this, including academics, the media, and members of the current administration, should be deeply ashamed of what they have done. Their silence in the face of another disproportionate assault on reason, this time focused on academic whistle-blowing and satirical “Gmail confessions” in New York, is equally troubling. For documentation on this latest case, see:


  75. Elaine,

    Thank you for the Charles Pierce link, it made the case for me. Essentially Swartz was being threatened with a long prison term for what? We watch a dysfunctional legal system that is able to harass a young man, while it pays deference to rapacious economic pirates. What I think is often missed by people who uphold our legal system is that our prosecutors and police are out of control except when it comes to deference to our Elite Class. Ms Ortiz and the government’s action in this case was loathsome bullying in the service of nothing that even tangentially relating to protecting society.

  76. The final paragraph of the Pierce/Esquire piece (link and excerpt posted up-thread by Elaine M. ):

    Back when rogue prosecutor Mike Nifong went crazy and ginned up a rape prosecution against several members of the Duke lacrosse team, there was a great deal of horror at how “the system” could have gone so horribly wrong. But it didn’t. It just got aimed for once at people with the financial and social wherewithal to fight back. There are minor-league Mike Nifongs in every precinct house and every federal law-enforcement operation and every DA’s office and all throughout the branch offices of the Department Of Justice. There are “Duke rape cases” happening every day in alleys and on streetcorners of every city, and on the dusty backroads on the outskirts of nowhere. They are there because we want them to be there. The cases happen because we want them to happen. Aaron Swartz ran into this culture here in Boston and now he’s dead, and people are angry at how the system operated in this case. They should be, but they should be angry not because the system failed, but because the system worked. It operated in exactly the way we have said as a society we want it to operate every time we cheer for “terrorist” arrests based on evidence produced by agents of the FBI. It operated in exactly the way we have said as a society it should operate every time we support warrantless wiretaps, or undercover provocateurs, or the denial of counsel to defendants who scare us the most. Our conduct, all of us, is accessorial to his death.

    Read more: Breaking Someone With The Law – Esquire http://www.esquire.com/blogs/politics/The_Case_Of_Aaron_Swartz#ixzz2I6xj21sC

    (Thanks, Elaine M.)

  77. Jeff Cox:

    “I am a bit saddened by comments on here that suggest at best a lack of understanding of clinical depression, at worst a lack of sympathy and compassion for its victims. Swartz’s clinical depression should not be used against him. clinical depression should not be used against him.”


    I didn’t read any comments that used his clinical depression against him. I didn’t read anything suggesting an ignorance of clinical depression (or more correctly “major depressive disorder.”) or about a lack of compassion for anyone that it would matter to. I read comments noting that Swartz had such a diagnosis though many practitioners con’t even agree on the criteria for what that means:


    I also read some conjecture that the condition may have contributed to his suicide. I said he took a less than courageous way to fight his case. No one here knows why young Mr. Swartz committed suicide and neither, my good counselor, do you. So please don’t go around being sad for no reason.

  78. I liked Charles Pierce’s book, too, but he’s just plain illogical here. When the system acts improperly (as he proclaims in the Swartz case) and doesn’t correct itself it’s wrong out of vindictiveness. When it acts properly and corrects itself (as in the Nifong case) it’s also wrong out of favoritism to the rich, which incidentally also describes Swartz.

    When, pray tell, my dear antagonist of the stupid is the system ever right?

  79. I don’t know all the details, and probably never will. However, I have worked on a number of cases where suicide was the result of overzealous prosecution. Come to think of it, most were Federal cases. One was an older man, a physician, who the Feds had decided he had written too many prescriptions for pain medication. I testified in Federal court on that one. He told the prosecutor within my hearing that he would never serve a single day in jail or prison and the prosecutor could take that to the bank. I believed the old doctor. They did get a conviction, but a few days before he was to report to prison, he had a traffic accident and was killed. He pulled out in front of a big 18-wheel truck which impacted the drivers side of his car and he was killed instantly. Official ruling by the highway patrol and coroner was accident. Because he had a double indemnity policy, his wife was able to collect his insurance at a 200% rate. I refused to testify at the coroner’s inquest, telling them I had no opinion to a reasonable certainty. That, despite the fact psychological autopsy is one of my specialties. In that particular case, I had no intention of getting involved.

    I have lost track of the jailhouse hangings I have reviewed.

    There are four basic elements necessary for a suicide gesture to be genuine:

    1. They feel hopeless. There is no future and no hope of changing the outcome. Going to prison for a substantial portion of your life expectancy, especially for something you did not feel was wrong would engender a hopeless feeling in almost anyone.

    2. Anger. It takes anger for someone to engage in murder. Especially self-murder. There has to be hostility turned inward, which is what usually happens when one is helpless to lash out against those who deserve to be the brunt of the anger. Sometimes suicide notes explicitly express anger at someone or something. I would not be surprised to find a suicide note in the present case as being written in such a way as to try and make the prosecutor feel guilty.

    3. Depression. People have to feel down and blue to contemplate suicide. A black hole so deep that all directions are up. The future is bleak, and there is no particularly good reason to keep living.

    4. Suicidal ideation. This is obvious on the face of it. One has to think of suicide as the solution to the aforementioned problems, or the would not do it. Unfortunately, suicide is a permanent solution to what may be a temporary problem. Or not. There is such a thing as rational suicide, such as when the soldier throws himself on a grenade to save his buddies.

  80. mespo,

    Perhaps the system has a better chance of being right when stupid antagonists are not part of the prosecution’s team.

  81. Otteray Scribe wrote:
    I refused to testify at the coroner’s inquest, telling them I had no opinion to a reasonable certainty.
    Honourable. Of course I am speaking strictly about your following the scientific and legal basis for not being able to testify with certainty. I’m not talking of any other acts or omissions that might be considered the “right thing to do” or “real justice”. No sir, nothing of the kind.

  82. “I read comments noting that Swartz had such a diagnosis though many practitioners con’t even agree on the criteria for what that means:”


    You’re absolutely right, but miss the point. Having worked specifically with people with major psychiatric disorders the problem of mis-diagnosis was rampant, for many reasons including the diagnostic criteria, which can easily be misconstrued by a practitioner. However, since one of my parents suffered from Major Depressive Disorder, I personally became quite aware of its manifestation many years prior to my training as a psychotherapist. Then too I have been professionally involved in intervening in many cases of suicidal attempts and suicidal ideation. My thinking as a practitioner evolved to the
    point where I came to try to treat the behavior of the patient, rather than be hemmed in by the narrow borders of the diagnostic criteria. In the end one doesn’t need advanced degrees and training to sense that someone has deep psychological problems.

    As OS, whose knowledge/experience is greater than my own stated:

    “Depression. People have to feel down and blue to contemplate suicide. A black hole so deep that all directions are up. The future is bleak, and there is no particularly good reason to keep living.”

    This young man was facing a potential 35 years in prison and fines of $1 million. I’m certain that the prosecution was aware of his psychological instability and used it against him by making such absurd threats. Make no mistake Swartz was being grossly overcharged in this manner and really do I have to tell you how good prosecutors are at scaring defendants, particularly those with no criminal background? One may respond to this by intoning “the law…is the law” and must be enforced. But really when has that ever been true? There are cases of heinous murder, where the prosecution to save energy, agrees to ludicrous plea bargaining of sentences of 15 years and yet this young man was being threatened with 35 years.

    I recently wrote about the story of “Les Miserables” where a man received 20 years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread and was pursued for another twenty years by a zealous police officer. Valjean was indeed guilty of the original theft ad of subsequently breaking his parole. Javert, the policeman was a scrupulously honest man, who was in fact doing his duty in his pursuit. The problem back then in France was the draconian laws and that they were enforced only on those who had little power. The problem today in our country is a similar one, especially since 9/11, but one that goes back to our country’s foundation. Gaining fame as a “tough” prosecutor has always been a path to political success.

    This case, were it not for Swartz prominence, would have been plea bargained out to perhaps a years probation and a small fine, but Ms. Ortiz had her own career to consider. Then too, what we often lose in our discussions of legal issues here, is the psychiatric bent of some of the people who become prosecutors or LEO’s. For some it is the feeling of power and that sickly sweet feeling of the sadist who can make their victim squirm. While you may be right in believing that no correlation between Swartz suicide and these charges may be proven, that doesn’t ameliorate the ridiculous retaliation of Ms. Ortiz in her prosecution.

    Finally, some have implied that suicide is taking the “coward’s way out” and to that I would reply that it is an unfair characterization. I’ve been in quite a few “hopeless” situations in my life and suicide has flashed across my mind at times, particularly when ill health and pain had me in despair. I never, however, did more than briefly contemplate and reject that solution. I am not a person who lapses into despair and depression though and I have had 10 years of intense psychotherapy and psychotherapy training to at least have fortified my personality against the depressive youth I experienced. I cannot and will not judge others tolerance of hopelessness. I certainly wouldn’t disparage their desperate choices by accusing them of cowardice.

  83. Mike S.,

    “Finally, some have implied that suicide is taking the “coward’s way out” and to that I would reply that it is an unfair characterization. I’ve been in quite a few “hopeless” situations in my life and suicide has flashed across my mind at times, particularly when ill health and pain had me in despair. I never, however, did more than briefly contemplate and reject that solution. I am not a person who lapses into despair and depression though and I have had 10 years of intense psychotherapy and psychotherapy training to at least have fortified my personality against the depressive youth I experienced. I cannot and will not judge others tolerance of hopelessness. I certainly wouldn’t disparage their desperate choices by accusing them of cowardice.”


    I agree. It may be hard to understand why people contemplate, attempt, or commit suicide. I was close to two people who attempted suicide. One was a dear uncle who was one of the kindest, funniest, and most generous individuals that I have ever known. Depression is a terrible disease. I have a good friend–a brilliant woman–who has suffered from depression for nearly a decade. She never leaves her house now–even to go for a walk or to visit with close friends.

  84. Memoir of Madness : William Styron Details the ‘Horror of Depression’ in His New Book
    August 28, 1990|ELIZABETH MEHREN

    VINEYARD HAVEN, Mass. — To those who have been there, lived through it and dared to talk about it, the very word seems quite inadequate. Depression suggests an indentation, a rut in the road or a hole in the earth. It recalls foul moods, bad days, fights with the family, economic decline.

    “It’s such a catch-all phrase,” said William Styron, the novelist and survivor of what he would prefer to call madness–depression that nearly cost his life. For such a major illness, Styron said, depression is “a true wimp of a word.”

    For as Styron discovered, true depression swallows its victims entirely, devours them in one huge gulp, then spirits them to an otherwise unknowable nadir.

    “To most of those who have experienced it,” Styron writes in “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness,” a slim volume Random House is publishing this month, “the horror of depression is so overwhelming as to be quite beyond expression.”

    But if there were a single designation for this disorder, a word or a phrase, Styron believes it would be something like \o7 brainstorm\f7 , meaning not some burst of intellectual inspiration, but “a veritable howling tempest in the brain.”

    That is how it felt to William Styron, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Lie Down in Darkness,” “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” “Sophie’s Choice” and other books and plays. At his year-round home in Roxbury, Conn., five years ago, Styron’s family watched helplessly while he moaned and shouted from his bed.

    “My head is exploding!” Styron cried. “My head is exploding!”

    The next day, he entered the psychiatric unit of Yale-New Haven Hospital for the treatment he believes saved his life…

    Five years ago, as he battled the demons of depression, such comforts were of scant consolation.

    This is what happened. Five years ago, at 60, Styron’s body and mind staged a revolt. A legendary drinker, a man who had been able to consume alcohol “abundantly, almost mercilessly,” Styron became unable to imbibe even the slightest quantity of alcoholic spirits.

    “My system became unable to absorb even the slightest amount of alcohol,” he recalled. “I would drink a little wine at dinner, and then all night I would be up going to the bathroom.” Soon, Styron said, “even a single drink would make me feel rotten.”

    In retrospect, Styron thinks the symptoms had actually begun sooner. “I felt maybe that previous spring,” the spring of 1984, “that I was having a little trouble,” he said. “I wasn’t feeling too hot.”

    With his wife, and with their friend Kurt Vonnegut, Styron took a trip to Poland. “We were supposed to be doing things with the dissidents,” Styron said. “But my heart wasn’t in it.” While Vonnegut and Rose Styron pursued political activities, Styron holed up in his hotel room. He felt listless, unenthusiastic, unwilling to participate.

    “I felt there was something happening, a slight aberration in my mind-body relationship. I felt it would go away.”

    But it didn’t. With the link to alcohol, the “aberration” was no longer slight.

    “I was not, and I am not, an alcoholic,” Styron said. “But I had a huge capacity to abuse alcohol–and I now realize it was abuse.

    “Drinking was built into my behavior pattern,” he went on. In “Darkness Visible” he elaborates, explaining, “I used alcohol as the magical conduit to fantasy and euphoria, and to the enhancement of the imagination.”

    But “suddenly,” Styron said, “it went away.” Just as suddenly, Styron found himself faced with trying to “alter the habits of a lifetime.”

    Over a beer, a physician whom Styron knew socially offered to write him a prescription for medication to help with Styron’s sleeplessness. The physician had never examined Styron as a patient, and did not ask his weight or age. He handed Styron a prescription for a drug called Ativan.

    “The great thing about Ativan,” this doctor told Styron, “is that you can take as much as you want without ever worrying.”

    Styron’s mood darkened. His body became stooped, like a very old man. On Martha’s Vineyard, he responded indifferently to the friends and fellowship he had previously treasured. “I felt a kind of numbness,” Styron writes, “but more particularly, an odd fragility, as if my body had actually become frail.”

    With this sense of physical debilitation came “an immense and aching solitude.” Styron could no longer concentrate. “The act of writing became more and more difficult and exhausting, stalled, and then finally ceased,” he writes.

    Over and over in his mind he heard a line from Baudelaire, “I have felt the wind of the wing of madness.”

    More than once, Styron had written scenes of depression into his novels. In “Sophie’s Choice,” the heroine is assaulted in New York, then takes to her room for days. She is unable even to lift her window blinds. This was fiction, Styron told himself as he wrote it. But now he shudders at how accurately he portrayed the depressive state of mind.

    “All that was written out of intuition,” Styron said. “I had no idea what a depressive mood actually was.” While he knew on one terrifying level that his own center had lost its bearing, “what astonishes me now is that I had only the most rudimentary knowledge of this thing called depression. I had no awareness, none at all, of the really pathological meaning of this thing.”

    One thing Styron has since learned is that the roots of this disease, depression, can run very, very deep. Some cases of clinical depression appear to be hereditary. In other cases, they may be linked to childhood traumas. The death of a parent in early adolescence seems often to bear on cases of depression in adulthood.

    Styron was barely 14 when his mother died of cancer. A year later, his father was hospitalized. Styron was not told why, but it now appears his father was treated for what was sometimes called “melancholia”–depression.

    “If I were to accept this theory, and I tend to do so–although I do not accept every psychoanalytic theory that comes along, I would have to say that this is a profound idea, the idea of incomplete mourning,” Styron said…

    Ultimately it was not drugs, not doctors, but good friends and family who helped Styron through the murk of his depression. Every day, Styron’s friend Art Buchwald, a neighbor on Martha’s Vineyard, would call Styron to offer encouragement. Buchwald also promised Styron that hospitalization would not ruin his career–that on the contrary, it might save it.

    As he writes in “Darkness Visible,” kitchen knives attained a new allure as Styron’s suicidal feelings increased. He contemplated inadvertent suicide, walking in front of a truck, for instance. His conversation reflected his mood. “I kept saying, ‘I’m finished,’ ” Styron said. “I kept using the phrase, ‘I’m a goner.’ “

  85. Mike S:

    Like so many things, hard cases make for tough decisions. Folks with extreme cases of Major Depressive Disorder requiring hospitalizations are usually properly diagnosed. The problem comes with those with mild or transient symptoms bordering on normal. Under current thinking having 5 of 9 factors suggests such a diagnosis but having four won’t get you anything more than a diagnosis of Depressive Disorder NOS. What about 4 or even 6? Why is 5 the magic number for concern?

    As for my suggestion that some courage was lacking here, I want to clarify that I easily accept that depression is in fact a disease and there is no shame in being a victim of it. It exists in most families including my own. The issue is your response to the disease which is both manageable in its mildest forms but does require some courage.

  86. “Like so many things, hard cases make for tough decisions. Folks with extreme cases of Major Depressive Disorder requiring hospitalizations are usually properly diagnosed. The problem comes with those with mild or transient symptoms bordering on normal. Under current thinking having 5 of 9 factors suggests such a diagnosis but having four won’t get you anything more than a diagnosis of Depressive Disorder NOS.”


    The problem is twofold. The first is that even the best clinicians sometimes are unable to diagnose the suicidal ideation in a particular individual. Secondly, though second hand I was aware of a situation in my extended family where the person killed themselves. Since I love the people involved I won’t go into further details. Suffice it to say that even with the best of psychiatric care and loved ones in close proximity, this beautiful persons suicide was not prevented.

    What I can say is that even if there is no provable tort liability against the governments actions, the stress involved in having a federal prosecution such as this is incredible. Perhaps no one can collect tort damages, yet the ferocity of this prosecution in inexcusable given the offense. It is the rough equivalent of Jean Valjean stealing a loaf of bread.

    Most importantly the law involving the government in criminal investigation and prosecution of copyright violations is a travesty. This is a civil matter and the only reason it became criminal was due to the ministrations of corporate lobbyists.

  87. Mike S and Elaine,

    You have certainly hit some 10 pound nails in target. Depression is one of the most underrated and misunderstood illnesses that has ever existed. The causes are as many things under the sun. One thing that will send some over the edge is blantant dishonesty…..

  88. Mike/Mark

    Re diagnosis. A coworker of mine killed herself about 20 years ago or so. She was a high functioning, very good therapist. Her mood appeared good, and was stable. She had a great husband and a pleasant life. She suffered from severe pain for which she found no acceptable way to manage. She decided to take a 6 month leave of absence to deal with it, a reasonable thing for a woman in her late 50’s with a secure financial picture. She parceled out her case load judiciously and staffed each case with the receiving clinician. She was in good spirits at the anticipation of the leave of absence and those of us who were closest to her wished her well and affirmed her decision. Less than a week later she walked into the river and drowned herself. None of us had seen a thing.

  89. Darren,
    Right on. To do a psychological autopsy evaluation correctly, a full review of all records, including all the accident scene reconstruction data would have been required. Since I balked at doing that, I really had no opinion to a scientific certainty. I would not have touched that stuff with a pole of any length, and neither the insurance company or the Feds had enough money to hire me to do so. It was just an unfortunate coincidence that I was the only person in the entire state with the skill set to do that kind of evaluation. 🙄

  90. “Yesterday, Ortiz’s husband, IBM Corp executive Thomas J. Dolan, took to Twitter and – without identifying himself as the US Attorney’s husband – defended the prosecutors’ actions in response to prominent critics, and even harshly criticized the Swartz family for assigning blame to prosecutors: “Truly incredible in their own son’s obit they blame others for his death”, Ortiz’s husband wrote. Once Dolan’s identity was discovered, he received assertive criticism and then sheepishly deleted his Twitter account.” (from Greenwald link posted by ap)

    Ortiz is obviously feeling the heat as her dufus husband tries to spin the blame back on the Swartz family. ( http://www.buzzfeed.com/buzzfeednews/prosecutors-husband-defends-push-to-jail-internet )

    As Pierce wrote: ““Good luck running for office, Carmen, with every hacker in the known universe targeting every campaign you ever run for the rest of your life.” I suppose that goes for your husband too when he attempts to put the blame on the Swartz family but fails to identify his close relationship to you.

    By the way … Ortiz has been criticized for going easy on corporations and executives caught in law breaking. Wonder if her husband’s executive status has anything to do with that prosecutorial compassion?

  91. “Less than a week later she walked into the river and drowned herself. None of us had seen a thing.”


    One of the problems with being in constant pain (I’ve been there) is that it overwhelms you mentally and you feel you will do anything to stop it. You can’t think rationally. The other problem is you can’t adequately describe it to others.
    Now for those who are in psychological pain the same truth holds. To be honest, the only time I’ve ever really felt clinical depression was after taking Ambien for two days for sleeping. I felt that my life was worthless and I had nothing to live for. Lucky for me my wife saw the state I was in and figured out it was the Ambien. I stopped taking it and the fog lifted.Just from that small instance I have an intimation of what true depression might feel like, but I can never really know what it is like to suffer from Major Depression.

  92. Aaron Swartz’s FOIA Requests Shed Light on His Struggle

    Wednesday, 16 January 2013
    By Jason Leopold, Truthout | Report


    Excerpt, but recommending the entire article.:

    “Rankled By ICE Domain Name Seizures

    Morisy, the Muckrock founder, said Swartz was particularly disturbed by actions on the part of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that led to the seizure of dozens of Internet domain names. He filed a FOIA in December 2010 with the agency in hopes of prying loose documents about its actions.

    “That really bothered him,” Morisy said about the domain name seizures. “He felt it was politicized. He was just really upset that the government could come in and do this.”

    ICE turned over to Swartz last October about 100 pages of heavily redacted documents. But the materials do not help explain the government’s actions.

    Morisy said he was working on an appeal for Swartz to send to ICE, a draft of which was ready at the time of his death last week. He added that Swartz expressed some interest in working with advocacy organizations, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), to “raise awareness about these issues and effect change.”

    “It wasn’t just a curiosity for him,” Morisy said about Swartz’s FOIA requests. “He wanted to see something done differently.”

    Free Speech Advocate

    Swartz also sought government records related to Pfc. Bradley Manning, the intelligence analyst accused of leaking hundreds of thousands of State Department cables and other documents to WikiLeaks. Specifically, Swartz’s December 27, 2010 FOIA request asked the Marine Corps to “please process as quickly as possible a request for the government-curated audio tapes created in Quantico brig visitation room #2 on December 18 and December 19 2010 from 1:00pm – 3:00pm.

    “These tapes may also contain a recording of David M. House; I have permission from David House under the Privacy Act to request these records,” Swartz wrote. He filed the same request with the Army Criminal Investigative Service on February 9, 2011. Both requests were denied because the “requested documents are part of an ongoing Army court-martial litigation are not releasable to the public at this time.”

    House is a founding member of the Bradley Manning Support Network who helped raise awareness about the conditions of Manning’s detention, which a military judge recently ruled was illegal. In June 2011, House was subpoeaned to appear before a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia, which is reportedly investigating Wikileaks and associations a group of Boston-area hackers may have had with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and/or Manning.

    House declined to comment about Swartz’s FOIA.

    Morisy said Swartz “was very interested in due process and the freedom of speech issues.” That certainly appeared to be the common thread in all of his FOIA requests.

    But it was also deeply personal for Swartz.

    Indeed, one of his FOIA requests sought from the United States Secret Service, “Any records on the procedures the Secret Service uses for reading encrypted hard disks.” Swartz, who filed the records request on February 28, 2011, was still waiting for the Secret Service to locate responsive records at the time of his death.

    In an article published Monday, investigative blogger Marcy Wheeler reported that two days before Swartz was arrested in January 2011, the Secret Service took over the investigation.

    On Monday, in what is considered standard procedure when the defendant in a case has died, the Justice Department announced that it had dropped its criminal case against Swartz.”


    From the Leopold article:

    “He did not leave a suicide note, according to police.”

    (It seems odd to me that he didn’t but, absent any other information, … )

  93. “(It seems odd to me that he didn’t but, absent any other information, … )” (ap)

    If there was one, I trust it has been secured by the family.

  94. If there was one, I trust it has been secured by the family. -Blouise

    Blouise, I hope that’s the case…

  95. ap,

    Yeah … well we both know there are other possibilities but then you and I are somewhat cynical … though I think we’d both prefer the term, realists.

  96. 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.

  97. 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.”

  98. 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.

  99. 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?

  100. 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.

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

    by Mike Masnick

    Wed, Jan 23rd 2013



    “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.

  102. 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


    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.

  103. 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”


    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.

  104. shano posted the following to another thread:


    “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.”


  105. Anonymous hacks US Sentencing Commission website for Swartz


    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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