Aaron Swartz, 1986-2013: a computer hacker who is now a political martyr

Virginia Heffernan is the national correspondent for Yahoo! News, covering culture and politics from a digital perspective. She wrote extensively on Internet culture during her eight years as a staff writer for The New York Times, and she has also worked at Harper’s, the New Yorker and Slate. Her book, “Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet,” is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.

By Virginia Heffernan

"Aaron Swartz's death is a loss for all humanity," Jacob Applebaum, a distinguished hacker, said by email to me today.

He was a "Web genius," wrote Lawrence Lessig, the Harvard Law School professor and director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University.

But just after Swartz died, on Friday, Lessig had wondered about another epithet used to describe him. “The question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Swartz be labeled a 'felon.'"

Aaron Swartz was a hacker-activist and a committed liberator of information. Facing federal charges, a possible sentence of 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine, for downloading subscription-only academic papers with the intent to distribute them, Swartz hanged himself in his apartment in Brooklyn on Friday. He was 26.

Sample papers Swartz attempted to set free include "John Berryman: The Poetics of Martyrdom" and "Mapping the Niger, 1798-1832: Trust, Testimony and 'Ocular Demonstration' in the Late Enlightenment." On its own initiative, JSTOR, which hosts the academic papers and never pressed charges against Swartz, started offering limited free access to its archive just this week.

"Aaron has been depressed about his case/upcoming trial," Susan Swartz, Swartz's mother, posted on a hacker section of the Ycombinator Web site today. "But we had no idea what he was going through was this painful."Aaron Swartz (image via The Atlantic Wire)

If Swartz's death plunged his admirers and colleagues into deep mourning, it also activated their fury. Though his suicide had no doubt many causes, Swartz may have come as close as anyone in recent memory to dying for a political movement. Those over 40 will have to think back to counterculture martyrs of the early 60s to find a comparably galvanizing figure. The prodigy developer, at 14, of RSS feeds, Swartz also agitated without cease—or compensation—for the free-culture movement.

Two years ago, in January, 2011, Swartz was arrested for, essentially, setting information free—as an animal-rights activist might liberate a zoo. In 2008, he had thrown open PACER, a subscription-only trove of federal judicial documents. And then he had downloaded the 4.8 million articles from JSTOR. Of course, thanks to the magic of electronic reproduction, the articles still exist on the JSTOR site.

Swartz was charged, then, with wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer and damaging a protected computer.

"I don't fully understand the reasons that he took his own life," Applebaum, who worked with Swartz on security projects, told me. "If it has to do with the thought of nearly endless pain of prison for working toward an open culture, I empathize with the goals and certainly with the stress." (Applebaum was himself the subject of a federal investigation for his connection with Wikileaks.)

"Such a jackboot on one's throat creates atomized people, which contributes to deep despair and depression."

As Applebaum and Lessig eulogize their hero, it's time a wider audience appreciate his achievements. Applebaum cites especially Tor2Web, Swartz's security project, and his Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto. The Manifesto, which lays out Swartz's politics, should be required reading for anyone seeking to understand the open-culture movement.

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