Political Animal


January 13, 2013 10:41 AM Prosecutorial Overreach and the Death of a Genius

By Adele Stan

When the news first hit yesterday of the untimely death of activist and internet genius Aaron Swartz, people from the worlds of academia, journalism, progressive activism and the left-wing hacker culture sat stunned. That so many, from across this broad spectrum not only knew the 26-year old, but had been recipients of his legendary generosity (and sometimes his exacting ire), speaks to a life lived on a grand scale.

Although many of my colleagues knew the man, I did not, and as is too often the case for me, I am getting to know him through his obituaries. His accomplishments in so short a time — from when he wrote the first specification for RSS code at the age of 14, to his co-founding of the aggregation Web site Reddit, to his activism that led to the death of proposed bad internet law — boggle the mind. Today many minds are trying to wrap themselves around the news of his suicide, which took place on Friday night.

Even in death, Swartz is stirring up discussion, this time about the nature of our judicial system. To make a point, he had hacked into JSTOR, the paywall-protected archives of scholarly articles, and Carmen Ortiz, the federal prosecutor in Boston, threw the book at him. He was facing 35 years in prison, despite the fact that he never demonstrated any intent to make money from his prank. Many are attributing his death to this fact.

The New York Times has a thorough obituary. The Nation’s Rick Perlstein offers a revealing elegy.


  • c u n d gulag on January 13, 2013 11:21 AM:

    WTF happened?
    He must really, really have p*ssed-off some powerful people!

    Usually, this kind of prosecutorial excess and zeal, is aimed at young "Blah" and brown men.

    What a loss to everyone!
    My condoslensces to this relatives, friends, and admirerers.

  • Barbara on January 13, 2013 2:09 PM:

    I could write a tome here, but I won't. On the one hand, what does it say that we find it so shocking when THIS person was singled out for such singularly unfair prosecution (and it was unfair) -- when this is really par for the course among prosecutors in the U.S. It just usually reaches someone a lot less illustrious with few or no friends, and certainly no friends in power. On the other hand, if there is a very bitter silver lining it is this: Carmen Ortiz thought she would make a career off of Mr. Swartz, and now, I imagine, she will never be elected to anything given the number of people (like me) who think she has blood on her hands because of her incredibly cynical ploy to feed off of the notoriety of a genuinely innovative thinker.

  • Crissa on January 13, 2013 4:17 PM:

    His 'hack' was an authorized account using an automated program on a laptop he left in a closet near the servers (so it wouldn't tie up their resources).

    Big hack. Literally any one who can write a Basic program could do it.

    And he didn't do anything illegal with the articles, and the account was authorized to access all the documents. Just, you know, they didn't expect anyone to ever do that.

    It's a load of BS.

  • Steve on January 13, 2013 4:22 PM:

    May I remind everyone that this is the Justice Department of the Obama Administration doing this?

    The same Administration that countenances the mistreatment and, if I may be so bold to say, torture of Bradley Manning.

    If this was the Bush Administration, can you imagine the howls of pain and outrage?

  • DJ on January 13, 2013 4:55 PM:

    His 'hack' was an authorized account using an automated program on a laptop he left in a closet near the servers (so it wouldn't tie up their resources).

    Was the laptop not also hard-wired to the servers?

  • Herostratus on January 13, 2013 8:05 PM:

    I don't know as it was prosecutorial overreach. This may be the exact best result for Carmen Ortiz and the DoJ: a dire warning to the next person who tries to shake up the current paradigm on intellectual property law. ("If they can do that to Aaron Swartz, what will they do to me?")

  • schtick on January 13, 2013 9:27 PM:

    So when you break one of the TOS rules it's a felony?

    What a joke our justice system is. They wanted to pile on felonies to put him away for up to 50 years, meanwhile, a guy gets 17 years for beating his grandmother to death with a hammer and Wall Street gets a finger shake for putting the economy in the toilet, while keeping their jobs, and folks are getting life for growing pot. WTF???

  • ET on January 14, 2013 10:26 AM:

    I will start by saying I am not a IP lawyer - but I don't think it matters what the intent behind the illegal downloading actually was. So they were right to go after him as purely a legal consideration. Also, he didn't just download 5, 20, or even 200- he was alleged to have downloaded 4.8 million documents.

    You can have the argument about whether these journals should have been "free" (not that they were free for the author to create, the journal to publish, or JSTOR to digitize) but to say that the law should have just ignored just doesn't seem like the right path either. As a librarian I have to worry about copyright and licensing restrictions every day, and there are times when it seems where situations gray or just plain inconvenient/stupid. Sure I think that IP law has gotten out of control, but millions of documents?!? Sorry that just doesn't fly for me.

    JSTOR provides a service and for that service they charge a fee - its called capitalism. Sure if the journal owner had digitized their historical content and made it freely available via the internet(doubtful for many reasons) it would be awesome and would be helpful for a known article(s) being chased down, that is not the only ability of JSTOR. What you are paying for from JSTOR is that they digitized them (while most journals likely have an electronic component for the current material in other location/s their full run is likely not digitally available outside of JSTOR) you are also paying for the ability to search in one place and have a better chance of retrieving anything in the database and not a lot of Internet noise. Having the free and the paid would be GREAT and I would love that - but we don't. Maybe the publishers of those journals should re-think.

  • Smartalek on January 14, 2013 11:38 AM:

    "Wall Street gets a finger shake for putting the economy in the toilet"

    IIRC, they never got so much as even a finger-shake... they just whined about that mean, America-hating, anti-business President. (You know -- the one who offered to cut SS?)
    I also believe that they were given (or was it loaned? -- but either way, several enterprises, and many, many individuals would have just collapsed without) several hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars (read: yours and mine).