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.

  • VW has agreed budget car concept, design: manager

    Volkswagen has agreed the basic concept and design of a budget car for emerging markets, a VW manager told Reuters, nearing the project's completion after a long struggle to meet cost targets for the vehicle. "The concept and design are now in place," Hans Demant, responsible for the so-called budget car project at VW, told Reuters on the eve of the Beijing auto show. "We will produce all components in China." Demant's comments are more upbeat than those of VW brand development chief Heinz-Jakob Neusser who said at last month's Geneva auto show that it was becoming more difficult to hit cost goals for the budget car, adding it made no sense to approve a vehicle that was not meeting in-house targets. VW lacks a strong presence in markets such as India and southeast Asia which are dominated by no-frills models, and without a successful budget car, analysts have questioned whether the group will be able to meet its goal of becoming the world's biggest carmaker by 2018.

  • China shoe factory strike shows welfare Achilles' heel

    By John Ruwitch DONGGUAN, China (Reuters) - Zhou Hujun, one of thousands of shoe factory workers on strike in southern China, drove his motorbike to the local government's Social Security Department seeking answers. After a few minutes, he left clutching spreadsheets that just raised more questions. Zhou and other striking workers believe Yue Yuen Industrial Holdings Ltd , which owns the factory making footwear for Nike , Adidas and others, has for years underpaid into workers' social insurance accounts - government-mandated nest eggs for disability, unemployment and retirement. The issue goes far beyond the shoe plant, and highlights a looming problem for China: the workforce that has transformed the country into a global manufacturing powerhouse over the past 35 years is coming up to retirement age.

  • For Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, boring is beautiful

    Investment banks Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs Group Inc posted better-than-expected quarterly earnings on Thursday, helped by gains in merger advisory and stock underwriting. The results underscored how businesses viewed as stodgy before the financial crisis are becoming critical drivers of earnings for investment banks now. Goldman's investment management, stock underwriting and merger advisory businesses logged big gains. Morgan Stanley did well in those areas, as well as in wealth management and bond underwriting.

  • Telus in new agreement to buy Canadian startup Mobilicity

    (Reuters) - Telus Corp , one of Canada's dominant telecom providers, has reached a new agreement to acquire struggling wireless startup Mobilicity, in a renewed bid to overcome government objections on competition grounds. Mobilicity said late Thursday that it agreed to be acquired by Telus for C$350 million and that a court-appointed monitor has recommended the transaction. The government last year twice blocked attempts by Telus to buy Mobilicity on grounds the acquisition would create undue concentration of ownership of wireless spectrum. Under a deal blocked in June, Telus would have paid C$380 million.

  • Exclusive: GM says recalled cars safe, but has not tested for knee-bump danger
    Exclusive: GM says recalled cars safe, but has not tested for knee-bump danger

    By Julia Edwards and Eric Beech WASHINGTON (Reuters) - General Motors says that cars being recalled because of faulty ignition switches can be driven safely before repairs, based on more than 80 tests, but the automaker has not addressed a problem long known to potentially shut off the engine: a simple bump from a driver's knee. Safety advocates and engineers say the lack of testing for this factor undermines GM's claims that the cars are safe. As early as 2004, GM engineers complained that the ignition switch could be turned off if the key was bumped by a knee. A Texas judge on Thursday allowed the unrepaired cars to stay on the road, over the objection of safety advocates and plaintiffs lawyers who said there is no way, short of repairs, to ensure the ignition switch would not slip out of the run position, turning off the motor and disabling power steering, power brakes and airbags.

  • Tech workers seek to use Steve Jobs evidence in upcoming trial on no-hire accords
    Tech workers seek to use Steve Jobs evidence in upcoming trial on no-hire accords

    By Dan Levine SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Four large technology companies should not be allowed to limit evidence about Apple Inc co-founder Steve Jobs at an upcoming trial over no-hire agreements in Silicon Valley, according to a court document filed late on Thursday by employees suing the firms. Tech workers brought a class action lawsuit against Apple, Google Inc, Intel Inc and Adobe Systems Inc in 2011, alleging they conspired to avoid competing for each other's employees in order to avert a salary war. The case, which is closely watched in Silicon Valley, is largely built on emails among top executives, including Apple's late chief executive Jobs and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

  • Rajaratnam's brother loses bid to dismiss insider trading charges

    By Nate Raymond NEW YORK (Reuters) - Rengan Rajaratnam, the younger brother of imprisoned hedge fund manager Raj Rajaratnam, on Friday lost a bid to dismiss some of the insider trading charges leveled against him last year. U.S. District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald in Manhattan ruled that the indictment adequately alleged the essential elements of the crimes charged. A lawyer for Rajaratnam did not respond to a request for comment. A spokeswoman for Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara declined to comment.

  • Lululemon yoga pants lawsuits in U.S. win final dismissals
    Lululemon yoga pants lawsuits in U.S. win final dismissals

    By Nate Raymond and Jonathan Stempel NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. judge has issued final dismissals of lawsuits accusing Lululemon Athletica Inc and various company officials of defrauding shareholders by concealing defects in yoga pants. U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest in Manhattan had on April 4 issued "draft" decisions dismissing a shareholder lawsuit against Lululemon, and two lawsuits accusing 11 executives and directors of missing red flags about poor quality control. Shareholders accused Lululemon of failing to disclose how its black Luon yoga pants were too sheer, culminating in an expensive March 2013 recall. They also accused the Vancouver, British Columbia-based company of overstating its ability to ensure good quality control and of concealing plans to replace its since departed chief executive, Christine Day.

Follow Yahoo! News

Loading...